The e-book version is available in open access at the following address: http://hdl.handle.net/10400.3/6326
Introduction of the chapter
A broad scholarly consensus maintains that citizen participation represents the very foundation of democratic life, and that news journalism is one of the pillars that support democracy’s continued and healthy existence, by guaranteeing the sustainment of an informed citizenry who identifies with the core principles of civic participation. In this context, young people are usually viewed as one of the key actors, without whose active contribution democratic societies are destined to a future of disintegration, apathy, and rampant individualism. Consequently, young people are also one of the primary targets when it comes to lay the blame for the decline of active citizenship and the rise of disenfranchisement, which is identified with low information levels and lack of news attentiveness (Buckingham 2000; Putnam 2000). In fact, research has suggested, in Europe and elsewhere, that younger generations have for a long time been growing less and less interested in traditional news content and more disconnected from mainstream news media, even to a greater extent than their counterparts in earlier decades (Lauf 2001; Blekesaune, Elvestad and Aalberg 2012).
At the same time, however, several studies have demonstrated that representations of youth in mainstream news media tend to reinforce the stereotype of an apathetic and individualistic collective actor, almost triggering a «self-fulfilling prophecy» (Merton 1948) which implies that predictions or expectations on what young people would wish and do eventually influence their behaviour. This common-sense representation of the disenfranchised younger generations who are only interested in «fun» further complicates the relationship between news journalism and young people (Griffin 2004; Wayne et al. 2010). It is not surprising, then, that such preju- dice tends to translate into youth’s migration from traditional news media to new digital news sources, that are explicitly designed for younger audiences (Newman et al. 2020; AgCom 2020) and can often provide young citizens with new opportunities in terms of repertoires of representations and tools for self-representation (Loader 2007).
The mutual distrust between traditional news media and youth that emerges from studies on media consumption has highlighted the need for further research on those sources of information that are growing ever more popular among younger audiences. If news consumption can still be considered one of the crucial elements of civic participation, it is important to investigate young people’s experiences of news and the main representations of the public sphere that they recognize as meaningful and legitimate. We refer here in particular to two kinds of youth-oriented news media, which have emerged in the last two decades:
1) hybrid digital native journalism – positioned at the intersection of information, entertainment, youth culture and advertising – which explicitly represents itself in opposition to the mainstream media and offers news content that is specifically designed to appeal to younger audiences;
2) algorithm-driven sources, which include social network sites (SNS), news aggregators, and news outlets that are native to social media, that have progressively appeared after 2006 with the diffusion of connected mobile devices and the growth of technology companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
In order to examine the differences between these two forms of digital news media and retrace the processes that brought from one to the other we will address two case-studies, even though they refer to two different periods and contexts. Notwithstanding their distinct methodological frame and framework, we propose that the two sets of data can be discussed together and can provide useful insights to understand some of youth’s orientations towards information, also in the context of the most recent changes in the news media landscape. Therefore, we will discuss:
(a) parts of a large set of comparative international data obtained during an European research in 2016: from this research we have specifically selected data regarding the case of Vice, a transnational digital news source focused on youth culture, that was originally born as a print magazine and grew into one of the most successful and innovative media companies of the early 2000s;
(b) an analysis based on data collected in ongoing research on the case of Will, an Italian digital news start-up born in 2020 that is part of a new generation of social-media native sources that distribute news exclusively through their Instagram profiles.
Additionally, to provide a background to our discussion of youth-oriented digital news media and discuss the role of mainstream news media in shaping pub- lic perceptions of youth, the first segment of our contribution will summarize the results emerged out of our participation in the European project mentioned above, by discussing part of the media landscape traced across seven EU countries.
We move from two main research questions: are youth a relevant actor within the discourse on the EU in news mainstream media, and what are the main issues most frequently connected to them? Conversely, what are the main issues covered in youth-oriented news media, and how are the processes of agenda setting and framing influenced by the specific forms taken by digital native news sources?