Survey: Facebook Not a News Destination, but Great for Exposure

Facebook users don't come looking for news, but most get it anyway.

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Here we thought all those tens of millions of Facebook users in the U.S. were tapping the site to keep tabs on Edward Snowden, the AHCA, the government shutdown and a cure for HIV.

But no: according to a new Pew Research national survey, people almost never actively turn to Facebook to gather news, though — and here’s the twist — slightly less than half of those surveyed said they notice news they wouldn’t have otherwise while browsing the social networking site.

News is “common but incidental” on Facebook, says Pew, which collaborated with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to survey 5,173 18+ adults, of which it says 3,268 were Facebook users and 1,429 of that subset “Facebook news consumers.” Most — Pew says “the vast majority” — don’t come to the platform looking for news, but 78% wind up getting news while they’re on the site anyway, though a trifling 4% call the site “the most important way they get news.”

Then again, it’s called Facebook, not Newsbook, so the best you might hope for is unanticipated cross-pollination, and that’s why news-o-philes have reason for cautious optimism when Pew writes “the survey provides evidence that Facebook exposes some people to news who otherwise might not get it.” The survey also unearthed some interesting demographics, like that younger, less traditionally news-engaged adults (aged 18 to 29) are as or more engaged when they use Facebook.

“What’s more,” says Pew, “these 18- to 29-year-olds get news on Facebook across topics at roughly the same levels as older age groups, turn there as often for breaking news and deem the site as important a source of news.”

As you’d suspect, Pew found that the more time people spent on Facebook, the more likely they were to be exposed to news: two-thirds of those surveyed who used Facebook for an hour or more a day encountered news, whereas that figure dropped to 41% for those who were on the site for less than an hour a day.

Interestingly, Pew found that those who consume news on Facebook are more active on the site across the board: 77% visit Facebook to see what friends are up to (versus 60% of non-news-consuming users), 49% visit to chat with family/friends (versus 29%), 26% visit to publish personal updates (versus 9%) and 65% visit the site multiple times in a day (versus just 29%). Were I Facebook, I’d be paying attention mostly to these particular results. If people who consume news on Facebook tend to be the most active users overall, doesn’t it behoove Facebook to make news a more integral part of the experience?

Right, next question: How did Pew define “news,” because if we’re talking mostly tabloid stuff like Miley Cyrus or Kanye vs. Jimmy Kimmel or the royal baby’s favorite food, I’m not sure we’re making societal headway. The research center says it defined news as “information about events and issues that involve more than just your friends or family.” Drill a little further into the report and you’ll find entertainment topping the survey charts at 73%. You have to drop down several categories before you’re at national government and politics (55%) or local government and politics (44%). Bottoming out the chart, you have international news (39%), science and technology (37%) and business (31%).

Glass half-empty or half-full? While it’s annoying, speaking as a news-lover, to see entertainment lording over all, it’s somewhat heartening to note that roughly a third of Facebook regular news consumers are bumping into international-, science/tech- or business-related stories.

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