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Discovering Millennials: Findings From a National Science Media Survey


  1. How Millennial media habits are different and the role curiosity plays in engagement.
  2. How to identify and communicate with a millennial audience.
  3. How to create audience profiles and why they are important.


Sue Ellen McCann – Why is science media important? Adults do most of their learning outside of an educational setting. Science journalism is an important part of the informal media that adults use.

Danielle Dana – Obstacles to how much journalism can convey. People’s beliefs, understandings, experiences, all impact their ability to engage with science.

SEM – What we are discovering it that if we want to assist the conversation, it’s important to understand people’s level of science curiosity. The higher level of science curiosity they have, the more disruptive it is to other values – political, religious, etc. A conservative who is science curious is able to overcome their feelings, thoughts, values about climate change.

SEM – Millennials are the largest generation in the United States – the first generation that disrupted media habits. Changed how we engage with media. It’s important to engage with this generation – they are the future audience.

DD – Millennials have been raised in a generation where science is a two-way street. Presents an amazing opportunity to cultivate a new generation of scientists. Previous generations were raised with science as a series of facts while millennials see it as a process. There are great opportunities to cultivate a new generation of science enthusiasts.

SEM – We have been fortunate enough at KQED to create programming based on audience research, but we constantly need to keep up with this generation because technology and the way we consume media has evolved. Important to stay on top of media trends and habits for millennials.

Fred Jacobs – It’s a tough challenge to figure out what’s going on in the millennial mindset and how it differs from the adult mindset we’re familiar with. In a previous study, spent an entire day with millennials to see how they consumed media. For this, science was a focal point. Before creating a qualitative instrument, talk to millennials first and quantify second. Ten focus groups – Raleigh, SF, Minneapolis, Washington DC. Made sure participants had some interest in science – people who go to museums, read science articles, etc. One group was public media users, other was not – learned key issues. Made sure to have a mix of people from varied political, religious backgrounds. Quantitative piece – partners that we were fortunate to have. NOVA, Science Friday, NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, PBS, and KQED Science. Strong partners who wanted to take part in the survey to see what the specific audience would look like. Used email databases that most of the brands had aggregated – used socializing thru Facebook and Twitter. Results varied quite a bit – some partners had very robust databases while others struggled. Also did a national survey online through a third party recruiter with 838 non-millennials (adults aged 38 and older).

Asheley Landrum – People interpret information about science through their value filters. We look at new information and determine if we find that information credible. If people are science curious, that seems to be the values filter that people use to organize new information. It seems to override political ideology. Developed a science curiosity scale – one important thing to note – didn’t just ask about people’s interest in science. Asked about interest in a variety of different subjects. If you ask directly, odds are that they’ll say yes. Embedded questions in a general interest survey – a better indicator of whether they’re interested in science.

Millennials are the most curious generation. Gender discrepancies in science – women tend to be more interested in health and wellness.

The more science curious people report being, the more they report paying attention to different kinds of public media. The more science curious the generation is, the more likely they are to be consuming social media – as well as television. More men report engaging with public media than women.

FJ – Public media consumption is a key variable in determining regular science usage. Science score is six times higher for people who use public media vs. people who don’t. It’s something that was theorized and showed up when it was quantified.

Online video and social media are the top two sources that people use to access science content. Television is a big part of science consumption – that said, other traditional media like AM/FM radio, print, magazines, are all much lower. Podcasts is the most surprising find – millennials are the biggest consumers of podcasts, but not science oriented podcasts. It’s a prime opportunity for content creation. While millennials have a definitive interest in science, their tastes run more towards “pop science” – science fiction movies, books, etc. Gravitate towards popular science – the #1 type of science that millennials consume. Personal/political views – millennials are capable of separating their political beliefs from their opinions on science. Huge degree of agreement. Millennials are more likely to rely on their own instinct, rather than recommendations or familiar/trusted sources. More about gut reaction than it is about any other thing.


Q: Did you segment online videos by source? Did you compare science curiosity to curiosity in general?

A: FJ – Did not segment videos, but there was conversation about Netflix documentaries and whether they were reliable or not.

A: AL – Participants conflate who creates the content with the source – for example, if something is on YouTube, it doesn’t mean it was produces science. We don’t expect domain specific curiosity to not correlate to other types of curiosity as well, eg. political curiosity. Questions were specifically targeted towards science media, but that might be more predictive towards other types of curiosity.

Q: Can you talk more about pop science – science fiction as a descriptor, which feels very different from science – can you talk more on that category?

A: FJ – What constitutes science to people is all over the map. It’s all part of science with a capital “S” – it was not a well-detailed descriptor, but used a couple of examples like science fiction and books. It was vague because we didn’t want to get too specific and move into the zone where people get very particular. Didn’t want to get too granular.

A: SEM – I would put Mythbusters, shows that have a balance of science and entertainment.

Q: Can we hear about how science education at the high school level is so poor, but that’s where millennials are coming from. How does that connect? Are millennials looking to supplement their education from other sources?

A: AL – People say high school education is poor – educators who are teaching science classes who aren’t trained to do that. It doesn’t seem to matter how much knowledge you have about science specifically – you can be interested without having a background in that topic. Maybe having a science background will make you engage on a different level. Maybe this push to get people more interested in science that started with younger age groups – Bill Nye – maybe have increased science interest in this age group as they’ve gotten older.

A: FJ – We heard Bill Nye a lot in the focus groups, esp. with the question “How did you get interested in science?” Carl Sagan, science popularizers. Opened the door to some serious scientists. Heard a lot about teachers as well as people who lit the light bulb.

Q: On social media, is there any breakdown of specific channels that people find more credible (Facebook, Snapchat, etc)? In terms of videos, do you find that science curious millennials will spend longer watching videos?

A: AL – Science curious millennials tend to watch longer videos.

A: SEM – The way people reach KQED science content is through search, then Facebook, then Twitter. Facebook recently launched Facebook Watch, and started sharing Deep Look video series. Grew audience 8 times – much faster than how audience grew on only youtube.

A: DD – Every time there’s a staff meeting, the technology has updated an algorithm that affects how information is getting dispersed.

A: FJ – Video is a key component, strategic use of social media, and search. Event orientation is also very important – engaging with science in real life.

A: DD – Spectrum of events – bar talks, large stadiums, etc. Put in an expert and these venues are selling out, mostly with younger people.

Q: Do you have theories on how to move the needle with specific disbelieving populations?

A: AL – Ideologies work as prism. People have the knowledge to counter their own position, and then they know how to refute the talking points. Science curiosity also counters that. Messaging tactics that compare environmentalist to communism, because there’s a link to big corporations that are the biggest polluters. There are different identity groups and values that predict how you’re going to interpret information.

Q: How does this group determine what is actually science and what is valuable?

A: FJ – Millennials believe that they’re savvy enough with social media enough to make that judgement.

A: AL – Gut is going to based off of values. Pushback on information based on whether or not it conflicts with ideology.

Q: Use scientific processes, but tend to still go with gut feeling.

A: FJ – The most educated believed in the scientific method. Had the ability to sort through the content.

A: AL – Interviewing flat earthers – want to use the scientific method to prove their point. Believe in the process, but not the result if it conflicts with their views.

Q: Demographic information?

A: AL – When we break down demographics for specific interest groups, need to over sample.

Q: Don’t relate to younger millennials at all – it would be really interesting to talk about the differences within millennials?

A: AL – didn’t see those differences based on age – although, expect older millennials to look very different.

Q: What specific events framed the millennial generation that causes them to think so differently?

A: AL – idea is that they are the first digital natives. However, it’s really different from people born in the 90s who had their own computers, they had smart boards. The idea is the digital native-ness.

A: DD – The accessibility of the internet. It’s okay to group everybody in that age because technically they have the same access.

A: AL – Gray areas around the edges where it blends out.

Q: The proportion of people in each of these generations who would self-identify as religious conservatives would be less and less. Is that true?

A: AL – People are less likely to identify with a specific religion, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t identify as something that we would consider religious. What do these people mean when they use the word “religious” – perhaps not a specific denomination, but from asking questions can understand that they do still mean religion in the traditional sense. Need to be better about how we’re measuring those questions.

These notes were captured by The Communications Network and have been reviewed by the presenters. ComNet18 Breakout Session notes were made possible thanks to the generous support of the Kalliopeia Foundation.


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