Why Blacks Respond to Digital News More Than Whites

Why Blacks Respond to Digital News More Than Whites

Why you should care

A new report on media consumption finds surprising differences in how Blacks and Whites use news.

“If the Democrats want to win Supreme Court and other Court picks, don’t Obstruct and Resist, but rather do it the good ol’ fashioned way, WIN ELECTIONS!” President Donald Trump tweets. “FEMA Was Not Ready for Puerto Rico Storm, Report Says,” runs the headline across The New York Times homepage. Push notifications buzz that Mueller indicts 12 Russian intel officers for hacking Democrats.

It’s 2018, and unless you live under a rock, it’s difficult to ignore the relentless media barrage, especially in these politically tumultuous times. But even though we’re exposed to a high volume of information, how many of us do anything with it? One study suggests the answer to that question could depend on race. According to a 2017 Fact Tank report conducted by Pew Research Center:

Black online news consumers took a follow up action with news online two-thirds of the time, compared with white online news consumers, who took a follow up action about half of the time.

In a nationally representative survey of more than 2,000 online news consumers, participants indicated whether they had gotten news online in the past two hours and then responded to questions about their behaviors with that news. Follow-up action was defined in a variety of ways, from speaking with someone about it to sharing or commenting on social platforms. Blacks spoke to another person about online news or bookmarked it more often, on average, than white news consumers.

The survey focused on those follow-up actions because they encompassed a wide and representative range of behaviors, according to Jeffrey Gottfried, senior researcher at Pew. However, Philip Napoli, a faculty affiliate with the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University, notes that some of the six actions aren’t necessarily the most precise ways to distinguish between active and passive engagement. After all, how many times have you flagged an intriguing article with the intention to read it later and then forgotten all about it?

Across all demographics, the news topics people intentionally sought out tended not to spur action.

As for the “why” of it all, part of the answer may lie in how Blacks and Whites find their news. The study revealed that Whites deliberately searched for news 43 percent of the time (compared with 32 percent for Blacks), whereas Blacks came across news while doing other things online 46 percent of the time (compared with 34 percent for Whites). Given that Blacks were already engaged in some other activity, adding another action — one of the six follow-ups — may have been a natural extension of existing behavior.

Across all demographics, the news topics people intentionally sought out tended not to spur action, according to the Pew report “How Americans Encounter, Recall and Act Upon Digital News” (the data for the 2017 Fact Tank report was drawn from this study). On the flip side, topics that people didn’t search for at a high rate — like community and health news — motivated them to act. The reason may be that individuals can actually do something useful and personal with community and health news — as opposed to headlines about Justin Bieber’s engagement ring. And since a greater percentage of Black respondents in the report weren’t actively looking for news, it’s possible the topics they came across were among those that more often prompted action. The reports revealed an odd paradox: People who received news passively were more active in response, while those who actively sought news seemed to interact with it more passively.

News burnout also could be increasing the racial gap between action and inaction. Keeping up with the 24-hour news cycle can be draining for everyone, but evidently, Whites have less stamina for it. Seventy-three percent of Whites reported feeling tired out by the news, compared to 55 percent among both Black Americans and Hispanics, according to the report: “Almost seven in 10 Americans have news fatigue, more among Republicans.” Exhausted readers who feel saturated with content probably wouldn’t feel compelled to act after consuming it.

To be sure, Napoli says it’s tricky to disentangle whether these actions tell us more about the news consumer or the story itself. In other words, do these findings really indicate that Blacks are more likely to act? Or instead, do they provide context about the type of journalism Blacks consume, and suggest that those stories are likelier to provoke reactions?

Here’s Napoli’s take: Rather than treating all behaviors as equal, researchers need to drill down into each one to figure out why it matters. “If there’s been any shortcoming of social media–based news research, it’s that we’re awash in all these easily capturable data points and haven’t really interrogated them for what their intrinsic meaning should be,” he says. Research exploring how many stories we are exposed to and how many we actually read, or how much we can recall about those stories, might prove more meaningful.

So, the next time something in the media challenges, informs or resonates with you, think twice about how that news found you and where you might send it next. Consuming on autopilot is easy, but what kind of content would actually spur you to action?

Correction: The original version of this feature mistakenly attributed data to people, rather than behaviors.

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