For decades, pollsters have known people lie when self-reporting about how they pay attention to news. That’s why it’s so hard to trust those kinds of surveys.
When asked what they watch on TV, for example, people might say documentaries about the state of the planet—because they know they should.
In fact, what they mostly watch are comedies and other forms of escapism.
Nothing wrong with that. It's just that you don't get accurate information about what people are really reading, watching and listening to.
That’s why counting clicks online has become the media’s best friend.
It's not the best form of measurement, of course. But through what people click on publishers can tell what people actually like—not what they say they like on self-reported surveys.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism took this to heart it wanted to know how much people under the age of 35 in Great Britain and the U.S. were actually reading news.
They started by asking them what news apps they had installed on their phones—something that shows interest and even intent.
Next, they came up with an ingenious way to get around the discrepancy between what people say they do, and what they actually do.
It was simple, really. They asked participants in the study to give them their phones so they could check battery usage for their apps.
As anyone who has checked knows, the apps you use most take the most power.
And the results?
Although the participants had downloaded news apps, the battery usage reports showed they actually spent very little time on them.
According to the study, no news app was in the top 25 apps used by participants.
In other words, while they may have intended to follow the news, in real life that didn’t happen.
But if you only asked them what news apps they had on their phones, you might mistakenly believe they were avid news junkies.
Admittedly, the researchers had a small sample size; just 20 people between the ages of 18 and 35, half in the U.S. and half in the UK. So we need to be careful about drawing too many conclusions.
But the results once again reveal the truth as explained by Derek Thompson in an article in Atlantic Online in 2015: "Ask readers what they want to eat, and they'll tell you vegetables. Watch them quietly, and they'll mostly eat candy."
What’s on your phone?