What a News Consumer Wants

What exactly is it that drives people to consume news information? If we can answer that, I would argue, then we open a new space of possibility for creating new media products, and for optimizing existing ones. As Google’s first commandment states: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.” I adopt this point of view here and will consider other perspectives (e.g. business or content producers) in future posts. In this post I really want to get at the underlying needs, motivations, or habits that drive news consumption.

First, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the “How” of news consumption and the “Why” of news consumption. How news is consumed is largely attributable to the medium and technology of presentation (e.g. paper, radio, TV, internet). The context and form-factor of the technology also matters: the way that people consume news across different devices has been shown to vary over the course of the day, and consumption of news on tablets exhibits different patterns than consumption on other devices. Certainly online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook have changed how people are exposed to and consume news. These are all technologies that facilitate news consumption, and bias it in their own ways as their unique affordances differentially enable, place constraints on, and influence behavior. The why of news consumption is more fundamental though, since understanding the underlying needs and motivations for consuming news can drive new mechanisms for the how of consumption. Going back to a user-centered design philosophy, ideally, the how amplifies the why, and the why informs the how.

Of course, why people consume news or media is not invariant across people or contexts. So there’s not bound to be a single user model that describes all people at once. For starters, demographic factors such as age and gender have been linked to different patterns of consumption (e.g. younger people tend to consume news more for the sake of escapism or passing time, women tend to be less interested in news on science and technology). This necessitates thinking about information niches and that needs and motives may vary over time and context. For instance, social context (e.g. co-viewing) can influence people to watch television news for longer. Individual differences also exist between people: personality traits such as extraversion and openness have been linked to both interest in politics and public affairs, as well as exposure to such related news. Considering all of the moderating factors that influence why someone might consume news (i.e. demographics, context, personality, …) how could products be designed to appeal to any of these niches? What does a news product for introverts look like? How should it work differently? 

Since the 1940’s communications and journalism scholars have been developing a theoretical framework that came to be known as Uses and Gratifications (U&G), which attempts to explain why people seek out and consume media. What are the gratifications that people receive from various kinds of media or types of content which help to satisfy their underlying social and psychological needs? Some of the earliest studies looked at why people consumed radio news, and some of the most recent look at internet technologies (e.g. I have looked at news commenting through this lens). U&G theory attempts to explain how/why people select their media, as well as how concentrated the attention is that they allocate (e.g. casually attending to a report for entertainment or to pass time is different than goal-oriented information seeking). Some limitations of the theory are (1) that it assumes an active user that is making selection decisions (though sometimes these calcify into habits), and (2) that the typologies of needs and motivations are built on self-reported information, instead of observational data. This second limitation is perhaps quite important, as research has shown that people over-report their interest in international news by a factor of 3 as compared to their actual news browsing behavior. So, just a quick caveat that, ideally, user needs and motivations should be triangulated and validated based on observations of behavior in addition to self-reports.

U&G proffers a typology of gratifications which help explain why people consume news. Those listed below are taken from Miller and Ruggiero and include:

  • Informational/Surveillance: finding out about relevant events and conditions in immediate surrounding, society, and the world; seeking advice on practical matters, or opinion and decision choices; satisfying curiosity and general interest; learning, self-education
  • Personal Identity: finding reinforcement for personal values; finding models of behavior; identifying with media actors; gaining insight into one’s self
  • Integration and Social Interaction: insight into circumstances of others including social empathy; identifying with others and gaining a sense of belonging; finding a basis for conversation and social interaction; enabling connection with family, friends, society
  • Entertainment/Diversion: escaping, relaxing, cultural or aesthetic enjoyment, filling time, emotional release, sexual arousal

You might ask yourself which news products address any of these motives better or worse? For instance, getting news on Facebook makes integration and social interaction motives very salient and easy for the user; watching Jon Stewart ties together entertainment and news effectively.

But still there is the underlying question of what are the driving psychological needs that lead to these categories of gratifications being sought through the media. For this we can turn to a theory of motivation developed over the last 40 years called Social Determination Theory; here’s a nice book on the subject. The theory postulates that there are three main drivers of intrinsic motivation: (1) autonomy, (2) competence, and (3) social-relatedness. Autonomy is about providing people with choices – the more choices people have the more in control they feel. Competence is about helping people to see the relationship between their behavior and some desired outcome; feeling competent is about taking on a challenge and meeting it. How could news products better help people feel autonomous or competent? Those products would be hits. The last driver is social-relatedness which is about people feeling connected to other people; social networks are already doing a pretty good job of satisfying that underlying psychological need.

Beyond psychological needs though, there may even be a biological driver for news consumption. In 1996 Pamela Shoemaker argued in a Journal of Communication paper that the human desire to surveil is evolutionarily adapted to help detect deviances or threats in the environment; humans that could surveil better were more likely to survive because they could avoid threats and thus reproduce. However, this hypothesis still needs to be tested empirically to see if people attend more to news that is more deviant (though it does seem plausible). What has been tested empirically, via a big-data analysis by information scientists Fang Wu and Bernardo Huberman, is how human attention orients to novel information and that that attention naturally decays over time according to a mathematical function. Indeed, for the digg.com site they found that the half-life for an item was, on average, 69 minutes, which suggests a natural time-scale (though site dependent) at which human attention fades.

There is a wide palette of options for thinking about new ways of engaging people in news information: context, demographics, personality, uses & gratifications, psychological needs, and biological drivers for novel information. There are likely many new (or existing) news products that can leverage this typology to personalize and make sure people are getting what they came for out of their media experience. And, to make the job even easier, research has also shown that people enjoy incidental exposure to news information. So, even if you initially motivate people to engage the media in one way (e.g. social relatedness), they will likely still enjoy incidental exposure to other news information.