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Young Adults Overwhelmed By Election News Online, Study Says

September 9, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Young adults often click away from 2008 election news online because they feel news sites bombard them with too much information and too many choices, according to a new study released by Northwestern University's Media Management Center.

"To serve and attract this important group, news organizations need to develop online election resources that are specifically designed to minimize this "too much" sensation," said Michael P. Smith, executive director of the Media Management Center (MMC).

The report, titled "From 'Too Much' to 'Just Right': Engaging Millennials in Election News on the Web," is based on a qualitative, in-depth study of a diverse group of 89 Chicago-area adults between the ages of 17 and 22, a demographic frequently referred to as millennials. To view the report, visit http://www.mediamanagementcenter.org/research/youthelection.pdf.

The report found that while millennials are interested in the elections and want information about the candidates and issues, they don't want to spend much time following day-to-day developments. However, they do appreciate news sites that help them—and other new voters—understand the basics about the candidates, issues and election process.

(Note: Monday, Sept. 15, 2008 from 1 to 2 p.m. CDT, MMC will conduct a free Webinar on the "Too Much" report for editors and online editors, with excerpts from videotaped interviews with young adults. To register in advance, visit www2.gotomeeting.com/register/926540536.)

Among other research findings and recommendations:
  • Millennials prefer to get election news from and trust sites that are in the primary business of news.
  • They don't particularly like commenting about the news online or reading comments.
  • Attempts to infuse the news with social networking features, amateur content, humor and youth oriented content can backfire if they diminish the seriousness and professionalism young people expect from news Web sites.
"This group is selective about how it spends its time," said Vivian Vahlberg, MMC managing director. "Our report provides news organizations that want to compete for the time and attention of millennials with a better understanding of their news needs, preferences and habits."
Researchers found the subject of the news doesn't usually trigger a "too much" reflex unless the subject has been over covered. The reflex is more about presentation and quantity. For example, things that turn off millennials include sites that are or have:
  • Too many things competing for attention, without clues about what is most important;
  • Too many details;
  • Too wordy; not distilled to the essence;
  • Too many choices;
  • Too much text, too high a percentage of text to graphics, or a screen of mostly text;
  • Site features that they don't immediately understand;
  • Pages or stories that go on and on and on.
To prevent overwhelming millennials, the report recommends that news organizations:
  • Place huge emphasis on clear, helpful, immediately understandable organization and design that signals what to focus on and conveys the relative importance of offerings on a page. Short, meaningful, compelling headlines are essential.
  • Offer content in manageable layers and chunks, letting the reader decide how deep to go. When stories go more than a page, young adults tend to tune out. However, if stories maintain their interest enough to click on a link, the millennials want some substance.
  • Have a lot but display a little. It's better for this audience to be selective in what is presented (with links to more information) than to overwhelm with "too much."
  • Concentrate most on information resources that help young people (and other new voters) understand the basics about the candidates, the issues and the election process.
The youth online engagement study, supported by a generous grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, is part of an ongoing body of research by the Media Management Center into consumer "experience" and the factors that contribute to greater engagement and involvement with news products.

Media Management Center is an executive education, research and development institute at Northwestern University.
Topics: Research