Study: Election Web sites can overwhelm

Alexandra Finkel

Young people are struggling to navigate the unprecedented amount of political news online this election season, a recent study by Northwestern’s Media Management Center has found.

The study, “From ‘Too Much’ to ‘Just Right’: Engaging Millennials in Election News on the Web,” is based on interviews and focus groups of 89 Chicago area young adults between the ages of 17 and 22. Interviews were done in April, and the Media Management Center released the study last month.

Although 49 percent of those surveyed said they go online at least once a week for election news, young people repeatedly told researchers they feel overwhelmed by election coverage.

Vivian Vahlberg, Media Management Center Managing Director and the study’s lead author, said she wanted to find out what attracts young people to and repels them from election news on popular Web sites.

Vahlberg selected seven Web sites that offered a range of different approaches designed to engage millennials, born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in news, including CNN, USA Today and Think MTV.

The study found that while young people want to be informed about the election, the news sites often led to a “too much” feeling, Vahlberg said.

“There was too much text and too many things competing for their attention on the site,” she said. “It made it hard for them to tell which things were important.”

Self-proclaimed political junkie Zach Ratner said even he has trouble navigating news sites and political blogs. The Weinberg freshman, whose home page is MSNBC.com, said he checks five political blogs multiple times per day and considers himself well-versed within the political blogosphere.

But even for him, sometimes news sites feel overwhelming, he said.

“It’s just too much, and I have to scroll through hundreds of stories I don’t want to read,” he said.

The study also found that sites attempting to attract young adults by offering social networking connections such as Think MTV actually backfired.

Ratner said he prefers to keep the two separate.

“If I want political news, I’ll go to these Web sites, and if I want a social networking site I’m going to go to Facebook, not Pollster,” he said.

However, Vahlberg said political news sites are designed for people like Ratner.

“Very often, Web sites are designed for the news junkies or for those who write the news,” Vahlberg said. “But for people who are voting in their first presidential election, they need to find the basics first, and that’s often difficult to find.”

Other students have adjusted to the abundance of information.

Weinberg sophomore Alex Levine grew up in a politically savvy household and reads Politico.com and The Washington Post’s Web site daily. He said that reading these sites was difficult at first, but now finding what he wants to read has become routine.

The study also found that young adults find commenting distracting and annoying.

“Commenting was a turn-off to most users,” Vahlberg said. “Most people didn’t want to read the comments of ‘random’ people because it seemed like a waste of time, and most often degenerated into fights that they found uncomfortable.”

Levine said he never reads the comments and has never commented either.

“Comments are usually in all capital letters or full of conspiracy theories, so they’re usually a waste of time,” he said.

Despite this “too much” feeling, the Internet is still the preferred place to go for election news, Vahlberg said.

“They can click away anytime, and with television it’s harder,” she said. “They like the control the Internet gives.”

Vahlberg has sent the study to over 15,000 news outlets and said she hopes news sites will take advantage of the information.

“It’s part of our feeling that the news business needs to be more customer-centric,” she said. “In this age of competitive media with lots of choices, the way to succeed is to know your consumers, but news organizations haven’t really done that.”

[email protected]