Nearly Half of College Students Surveyed Aren’t Sure They Can Spot Fake News

For those of us who were raised during the era of the morning paper and 6:00pm news on a whopping three TV stations, it’s strange to think about how young people these days are consuming news. What was once half-hour dip into the day’s headlines is now a near-constant attempt not to drown. What was once a sip of water is now a firehose—and not all of it is safe for drinking.

We all feel the effects of being bombarded 24/7 with news, op-eds, commentary on news and op-eds, and commentary on that commentary. Add in the much maligned, misunderstood, and scapegoated “fake news,” and figuring out how to simply be an informed citizen feels like a full-time job. I’m a college-educated adult who works in media, and it’s a lot for me to sift through. I can’t imagine being a teen or young adult who is just getting their feet wet.

College students can't spot fake news.
Nearly half of college students surveyed say they can’t discern real news from fake news. (Hadrian/ Shutterstock)

College students struggle to spot “fake news”

So it wasn’t all that surprising to see the results of the Project Information Literacy study from Northeastern University. In a survey of 6000 college students, nearly half reported that they weren’t confident in their ability to discern real news from fake news. In addition, more than a third said that the preponderance of misinformation out there affected their trust in all media.

“Young people have different ways of consuming news than people born even a decade before them,” John Wihbey, a Northeastern professor and one of the researchers who conducted the study, said in a press release. “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.”

The good news is that young people are interested in the news. They get their news from a wide variety of sources, with the vast majority make use of social media for that purpose. Only 1.6% of respondents never get any news from any social media outlet, while 89% had gotten news from social media outlets in the preceding week.

With prominent figures accusing reputable journalists of peddling fake news and with actual fake news being an actual thing, it’s understandable that young people might not be sure who they can trust.

Professor Erin Looney, who teaches communication and media courses at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, feels that there’s hope for our young folks. Though this study shows that they’re concerned about fake news, she says, that doesn’t mean they’re overwhelmingly likely to be taken by misinformation.

“With my students,” Looney says, “I find they’re more likely to hesitate to trust what they read because they’ve been conditioned to think everything is questionable. The conversation about fake news has been elevated so much since 2016 that young people are worried they’ll share a bad piece of information and look foolish or uneducated.”

Looney says the study speaks to an even bigger problem. “We simply don’t teach media literacy before college. I took it for granted for a while when I first started teaching. As a former broadcaster with a collection of communication and media degrees, I never really spent my adult life in a world without other voracious and informed consumers of media.

It was only when I started teaching that I realized it was not a shortcoming that my students didn’t know the difference between fact and fiction. It was as simple as not having been asked to consider there even was a difference.”

“In a way,” she adds, “the “fake news” uproar following the 2016 election has been a blessing for my students because they are much more likely now to consider the source of their information than they were before.”

How can parents better prepare kids for navigating through the news media? Looney says building critical thinking skills in general is vital. “Parents can also encourage children to get involved in activities that cultivate their fact-finding skills,” she says. “From Scouts to board games, there are countless ways to develop critical thinking skills at home so their children are better equipped to question and confirm what they hear or read.”

Looney also says schools can take specific steps to equip kids with the tools they need to be wise news consumers. “There’s a really great resource called the News Literacy Project,” she says,“Their mission is to bring media literacy to middle and high school classrooms, helping to create adults who are confident consumers of the media and consequently more active participants in our democracy.”

“It’s not the only game in town, of course,” she adds. “The best and most comprehensive way for schools to prepare students, would be to build media literacy into the curriculum and emphasize the importance of the media in a democratic society. Hands down.

Teach students about the First Amendment and the press’s role as the fourth estate. In an ideal world, media courses would be as pervasive – and required! – as algebra and English.”

Despite how frustrating it is when people misuse the fake news label, the silver lining is that young people are asking important questions about what’s true and false, what’s real and fake, and whom they should and shouldn’t trust. That’s a good thing and something we should encourage in kids—as long as they have wise mentors to help guide them through how to answer those questions.


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About Annie Reneau

Annie Reneau is a writer, wife, and mother of three with a penchant for coffee, wanderlust, and practical idealism. On good days, she enjoys the beautiful struggle of maintaining a well-balanced life. On bad days, she binges on chocolate and dreams of traveling the world alone. Her writing can be found on Upworthy and Scary Mommy, in O Magazine, and in a big ol’ slush pile inside her head. You can also find her on Facebook and Instagram.

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