Inclusion Insight

Young People & Disengagement from News

As we try to figure out what news should look like in the future, young people are important. Not because they’re young per se, but because they’re the adults of the future and are used to accessing their news via websites, apps and social media rather than traditional TV news bulletins.

There’s lots of debate on how long the traditional TV bulletins will survive, but whether it’s five years, ten years — or perhaps even a little bit more — it’s clear that their days are numbered. If I — a TV journalist who often works on those programmes — often find them unwatchable, then how can we expect anyone else to engage with them.

That became even more clear to me in some work I recently did with young people at EYST (Ethnic Minorities & Youth Support Team) in Swansea. EYST is an amazing organisation which aims to provide holistic support to young BME people, and is doing so very successfully. I first worked with them around 5 years ago, on an investigation around the radicalisation of young people by the far right, and they’ve consistently represented young people whose voices often go unheard by wider society.

I’ve written before about how research is a political process, and that’s why I chose to work with the young people at EYST. I wanted their views to be over-represented in my work, because they’re hugely under-represented in the day-to-day practice of journalism. I make no apologies for that.

The group was made up of around 15 young people, and the workshop was split up into two sections. First, we watched elements of a traditional TV news programme, and the young people fed back on how they experienced it. We then split into two groups for a mini Design Thinking workshop to explore their thoughts on the barriers they face to accessing and engaging with the news.

Watching a TV news programme in the same room as a group of young people is a very valuable, enlightening and frankly chastening experience. The many ways in which we’re failing them became clear to me within the first thirty seconds. The headline sequence of a “flagship” news programme is supposed to be the shop window for the programme — to draw you in, spark your curiosity and get you excited about what delights lie in store. I’ve been there myself when every element is agonised over, every word is written and rewritten, every picture is cut and recut. I can tell you now, that was all a waste of time, because the whole format is wrong.

The young people I was watching the programme with had switched off within 20 seconds. That’s not because they weren’t engaged, but because there was nothing there to engage them. The newspaper-style writing, the old-fashioned use of pictures and the uninspiring stories meant they would rather have done almost anything else than watch the rest of that programme. It wasn’t just the young people either — the adult youth workers were similarly put off by the style and delivery.

As a side note, the only way in which the young people saw “themselves” reflected was in a story about gangs and knife crime. It’s not them of course, and doesn’t actually reflect their lives. The only thing it does reflect is a white, metropolitan, middle-class view of what BME young people are involved in or interested in. It’s not good enough.

We did press on though. I had to stop the top report on Brexit after about forty seconds, because again the young people had nothing to engage with. What they felt was missing was any sense of context. Because an enormous amount of knowledge about the detailed political machinations was assumed, they had no access point to the story because they hadn’t been watching the story every day. Again, that’s a phenomenon many adults have reported to me too.

The young people found much more to interest them in a human-centred story about the contaminated blood scandal. There was a particularly affecting story about one family at the centre of the piece, but this was made almost the entire focus of the piece — which worked well. It notably avoided using official voices for “balance”, which one would normally expect but wasn’t actually necessary. As a result the young people felt much more engaged and remembered a lot more of the detail and the impact of the story.

When we moved onto the Design Thinking part of the workshop, the young people were generally engaged — because they see that understanding what’s going around them is important. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a group of people who are more affected by the big policy decisions that are in play right now.

I asked the two groups to come up with a “persona” which they’d work with, and then to think about what their barriers to engaging with news might be, and what the possible solutions to those problems might be. One group’s persona was unemployed, the other worked in JD Sports. Their barriers to engaging with news were access (the unemployed person had a “brick” phone and no TV) and being able to understand the stories (they felt too much knowledge was assumed and wanted more context and background). Amongst their solutions were news services in schools and on buses and more background material attached to or alongside news stories.

These were personas, problems and ideas rooted in the young peoples’ lives and experiences and our discussions only reinforced what I already knew — that their needs aren’t being discussed or engaged with in most newsrooms. Watching that headline sequence with them brought it home to me very forcibly.

There’s lots of talk about news becoming more “diverse”, but very little action. That’s not really surprising when decision-makers probably realise that making news that is genuinely different would require a re-imagining and re-learning process that would de-privilege them and perhaps even privilege those with a holistic and thoroughgoing conception of diversity.

None of this is scientific of course, but it was an interesting and useful exercise largely because it’s one which isn’t being done much. I hope to repeat this work with other young people and deepen my understanding of how we can better engage with them. I think it’s important to note though, that I genuinely believe that we can find some universal answers — that will work for all audiences — from these insights.

Thanks to Rocio, Shahab, all the team at EYST, and of course the young people I worked with, for their help and support.

Has this sparked ideas for you?

Do get in touch if you want to pick up on any of these thoughts.