Changing Media Practices And the Future of STEM Journalism

Early career adults are skilled at finding news content that interests them. By exploring how this cohort engages with STEM news stories, this project highlights their specific entry points as well as ways media organizations can structure stories to reach new segments of this audience.

by John FraserJena Barchas-LichtensteinJohn VoiklisUduak Grace ThomasNicole LaMarcaKathryn NockKate FlinnerJoseph de la Torre Dwyer
Jan 10, 2020

Key Findings

Outside of formal education settings, adults get most of their STEM information from news media. Younger adults (ages 18-35) are particularly skilled at navigating media platforms and very selective about what content they choose to engage with. A partnership between PBS NewsHour and Knology, the Experiments in Transmedia research study, sought to better understand how this cohort interacts with different platforms and the different formats that STEM news stories can take. The findings described in this report are intended to help news media and journalists better serve early-career adults’ STEM news needs as well as reach new segments of this particular cohort.

This research highlighted various ways early career adults choose to access STEM news and their motivations for consuming the content they choose. Some individuals self-identify as “science people” and are more likely to seek out STEM news content on their own. Other people consume STEM stories not because of the science content, but because specific features of these stories appeal in some way to personal motivations and sensibilities.

The study also offered a possible explanation for why young people sift quickly through news content. Rather than being indicative of a short attention span, our findings suggest that these individuals are masters at managing their news and media feeds. They make quick decisions about story relevance and move on if stories don’t immediately present them with what they want to know. In essence, the quicker stories get to the point, the more likely early-career adult audiences are to stick with them.

Let’s Put It to Work

For news organizations: Early-career adults who self-identify as “science people” make up a core audience for news organizations’ STEM content. And they are more likely to do the work of seeking this content out for themselves. To maintain this group’s interest, news organizations should continue to produce good STEM news content that is designed for more science-literate audiences. However, to reach individuals who may not have a pre-existing interest in science, news media also need to create content that appeals to personal motivations and to aesthetics. We note here that these strategies for news production do not need to be mutually exclusive. News stories can be structured in ways that incorporate both humanistic framing and details of research methods and analysis.

For journalists: The proliferation of different digital platforms in recent years provides ample opportunities for journalists to communicate and interact with their audience. This engagement can provide journalists with a sense of how people respond to news stories and what questions they have about the content. These questions could provide fodder for future investigations that inform audiences about issues that matter to them or help alleviate concerns about specific topics. Journalists also need to be mindful of the motivations audiences have for choosing to consume particular news content, and varying the structure of their stories accordingly.

About this Study

The Experiments in Transmedia study was launched in 2015 as a collaboration between WETA/PBS NewsHour and Knology. This project, which was funded by the National Science Foundation (Award #1516347), focused on creating content and gathering feedback from a target audience of 18- to 35-year-olds, with an eye towards understanding how media-based tools and platforms affect their engagement with STEM news.

Want to learn more about how we did this study? instruments, conference presentations, videos, and other resources are provided in the Appendix to this Report, which is available here.

Photo credit: Garry Knight

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