Faced with a daily barrage of news, college students find it hard to tell what’s real and what’s ‘fake news’

10/15/18 – BOSTON, MA. – A student scrolls through the New York Times app on her iPhone on October 15, 2018. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

College students turn to their peers and online versions of trusted newspapers for news at least twice as often as they do to print publications, TV, or podcasts. Those who get their news on social media turn to Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube more often than Twitter. And nine out of ten college students get their news from at least five different sources in a given week.

With so many different ways to get news, students face a constant surge that makes it difficult for them to distinguish between what’s real and what’s fake, and in some cases, to trust any news at all, according to a new report from one of the largest and most comprehensive studies of youth media engagement.

“Young people have different ways of consuming news than people born even a decade before them,” said John Wihbey, a Northeastern professor and one of the researchers who conducted the study. “Our report suggests that in some ways, we have created for young people an extremely difficult environment of news. We need to figure out ways to guide them so they can navigate it.”

Much of the work comes down to education, including teaching students both from an earlier age and more frequently throughout their school careers how to evaluate news, according to the researchers. They also encouraged journalists to embrace new storytelling techniques and add context to the news they push out, and called on social media companies to help users discern real news from “fake news.”

“Students are feeling at-sea about how to navigate the news today. The rebirth of a more in-depth and truth-seeking habit among students would be immensely helpful for our society and our democracy,” said Dan Cohen, Dean of Libraries at Northeastern, and another of the researchers on the study.

The yearlong study, commissioned by the Knight Foundation and published by the nonprofit research institute Project Information Literacy, surveyed nearly 6,000 students across 11 U.S. colleges and universities. Researchers also combed through posts from 135,000 college-aged Twitter users to better understand news-sharing behaviors.

On a given week, 93 percent of students surveyed got their news from conversations with peers, and 89 percent from social media, the study found. The results showed that 76 percent of students turned to online newspaper sites, but only 33 percent went to print publications. Students were more likely to learn about news in discussions with professors (70 percent) than TV (45 percent), radio (37 percent) or podcasts (28 percent).

Students surveyed in the study described grappling with several versions of the same story, each presented in a different way and from a different source.

Because students believe the threat of misinformation is so high, they feel compelled to actively seek out more information about a topic they read about, and cross-reference that information among news sources.

“Going into this, I knew there was a flood of news today, but it was unsettling for me to read about how students are having a difficult time dealing with the firehose of information,” Cohen said.


News knows no personal boundaries, so students follow it selectively

Students in the study said they seek out news that related to their area of study. The researchers found some variation in this, though. More than half (51 percent) of the education majors in the study reported seeking out education-related news, while less than a third (29 percent) of math majors said they had done the same about news related to their field.

Students in the study said they felt inundated with a constant stream of written- and visual news. Sixty-eight percent of students reported that the sheer amount of news available to them was overwhelming, and more than half (51 percent) said the volume of news made it difficult to identify the most important news stories on any given day.

The volume of news available to young people is made exponentially more vast by the different kinds of things students consider news, the study found.

For example, students in the study considered memes (often photos overlaid with short text that are quickly passed around the internet) important conversation-starters, if not legitimate pieces of news. Cohen compared them to the political cartoons found in print publications of yore that inspired a new wave of political activism among youth of the 1960s and ‘70s.

“We’re shifting from the highly textual environment which in grew up in, to one that’s much more visual,” Cohen said. “As a society, we haven’t come to grips with the Age of Instagram, as I’m calling it. Memes have an outsized influence and impact on the current generation of college students.”


There’s a tension between students’ idealized views of journalism and their distrust of news

Students in the study said they uphold the core principles of journalism: truth, accuracy, independence, and accuracy. Most students (82 percent) said that news was important in a democracy, and 63 percent said that following news was a civic responsibility.

However, a common refrain among the students surveyed was an overall dissatisfaction with the quality of news available to them in the era of “fake news” and misinformation.

Thirty-six percent of students said that the threat of “fake news” had made them distrust the credibility of any news. Almost half of the students (45 percent) lacked confidence with discerning real news from “fake news.”

“The rather contentious and poisonous public discourse around ‘fake news’ has substantially put young news consumers on guard about almost everything they see,” Wihbey said.

“That’s a double-edged sword because on the one side, you’re arming young news consumers to be aware of the source of information,” he said. “On the other side, we don’t want to raise a generation not to believe in the power of well-reported, well-researched, well-sourced news.”