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Oct. 19, 2018, 8 a.m.
Audience & Social

College students broadly mistrust news. Fake Kardashian gossip probably won’t help.

“Why give them the ammo?”

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

“It is really hard to know what is real in today’s society.” How do college students consume news and information? The team from Project Information Literacy, with funding from Knight, surveyed nearly 6,000 U.S. college students (at public, private, and community colleges). The full report is here. Our sister publication, Nieman Reports, has a good overview of the study here written by its coauthor, Northeastern professor John Wihbey. From his writeup:

“Fake news,” no matter what agenda this phrase is pushing, has had an impact on news consumers. A third of the survey sample (36%) said they agreed that the threat of “fake news” had made them distrust the credibility of any news. Almost half (45%) struggled with discerning “real news” from “fake news,” and only 14% said they were “very confident” they could detect “fake news.” As one student lamented, “It is really hard to know what is real in today’s society. There are a lot of news sources, and it is difficult to trust any of them.”

There were also many complaints from young news consumers about all of the rabbit holes of misinformation and the troubles they face traversing a minefield of bias, lies, half-truths, and statements from politicians that purposely omit essential details. As one junior majoring in life and physical sciences summed it up, “I spend more time trying to find an unbiased site than I do reading the news I find.”

These young people are part of a generation that, as one interviewee put it, knows only “fast news,” a kind of baffling blur of disconnected and incomplete snippets and hot takes, tweets, GIFs, and memes that have come to be, in large part, a by-product of social media posts. As one film major said: “The speed of news is changing; it really has increased with the amount of news that’s out there … News stories happen and appear so quickly.”

News organizations increasingly seem to package everything as breaking news, as students pointed out, and half (51%) of the students we surveyed agreed it was difficult to identify the most important news stories on any given day.

I was particularly interested in the direct quotes from students about how they’re thinking about the trustworthiness of news. The sense of blanket mistrust — of a need for constant skepticism no matter what you are reading — is striking (and depressing considering how major news organizations are attempting to build direct relationships with readers as they turn toward subscription models and away from advertising). Here are a few from the report.

It’s almost like the mainstream media lies by omission, so I prefer to listen to podcasts, especially shows on NPR, which are the most credible news sources.

I spend more time trying to find an unbiased site than I do reading the news I find.

It is really hard to know what is real in today’s society; there are a lot of news sources and it is difficult to trust any of them.

The fact that people consider news on social media as news is the most troubling fact, I mean nine times out of ten, a headline is only designed for ‘clickbait’ for ad revenue — I don’t use or trust news on social media.

Their end goal is selling advertising.

It’s the umbrella organization that gives the news legitimacy. I don’t really care about who’s writing the story.

I really don’t trust any news source and that is why I talk to my peers and professors to see what others think and to see if it might be a bogus story or not. People have to fact check and not accept or trust one news source as the end-all-be-all, they need to create their own view of the news. No news source is entirely credible but I think you can piece it together if you pull from enough different news sources.

I don’t trust the news anymore. It all fills an agenda — that’s a fact.

The Washington Post tends to have great reporting but it’s owned by Amazon which is strange, and thinking about these giant media conglomerates, how accurate can their business reporting be if Jeff Bezos is at the top?

Professors often believe that news that comes from print sources or large media outlets tend to be more reliable. While this may have been true previously, there are some lesser known or smaller creators, like those on YouTube or vigilant “civilians,” that have quickly become either more reliable or diverse in their reporting, and these sources should be considered more seriously in course assignments, though it should be asked, by professors, that students think critically about the source and try to use multiple sources from any platform.

Do you love this or hate this? On Thursday afternoon, Elle’s social media department did something that some people think is stupid and reckless and others think is savvy and smart:

Click through and what you get is…a link to register to vote. BuzzFeed News’s Remy Smidt writes that it’s part of a broader trend (ok: like a mini two-day trend) of people sharing fake celebrity gossip to get people to register to vote and it actually seems to be working, based on a bunch of people she talked to who said that they registered after seeing fake gossip.

Another 20-year-old said that she would have forgotten about voting, if not for her attempt to learn more about the Davidson-Grande breakup.

“I’m grateful for the link,” Azarian, a 20-year-old from New Orleans, told BuzzFeed News.”I think it’s a clever way to get people to vote since everyone is so caught up and distracted by the media, but find it hard to participate in things that matter. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the link, I would’ve forgot about voting, distracted by everyday life.”

Media Twitter reactions: Some people think it’s really gross/patronizing/borderline dangerous and others think it’s somewhere between brilliant and harmless. You can decide where you fall on that spectrum. I personally think that, as a “trick” by a major media company, it’s kind of gross — and feels more alarming in light of the results from the survey above, which suggest that young people in the U.S. are already highly distrustful of news period. In semi-related news, Facebook is banning some misinformation that is related to voting.

Elle apologized on Thursday night — and has tweeted multiple straightforward voting links since then.

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Oct. 19, 2018, 8 a.m.
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