As a middle aged college professor, I hear a lot from colleagues about how worried they are about how young people relate to news. The dominant narrative among us older folks is that young people: don’t consider news important; spend all their time surfing the net for celebrity gossip and cute videos; spend all of their time in information silos, and so never hear other points of view; believe everything they read on the internet; and generally are not informed about what is happening the world.
I wondered how true this all was and so read a few academic articles and held a few focus groups with students at De Anza College where I teach. I now believe that the people who are college age right now are generally just as informed as people of my generation about world affairs. They feel just as motivated to be as informed. The mechanisms they use for figuring out what news to trust are roughly as good as those of older people. And while they tend to get almost all of their news online, and through their social media feeds, they also encounter media with viewpoints different from their own. [i] That doesn’t mean that they are as well informed as they should be. It just means that they aren’t worse than the rest of us.
When asked why they are interested in news, many of our students said that they didn’t want to look stupid or uninformed. When asked what feels good to them about being well informed, the two following comments were typical: “it’s empowering to know what is happening in the world,” and “it feels good to contribute to an intellectual conversation.”[ii]
It is important to remember that we older folks did not grow up in a time of healthy new habits. At that time there was an incredible hegemony of the mainstream. Almost everyone watched television news on one of three channels, which were virtually identical. And there wasn’t a huge difference between the different newspapers. That lead to there being one common conversation, but that one conversation was incredibly biased toward the dominant ways of understanding things. I grew up with a news media that reported on the Iranian revolution that happened in 1978-1979 as if the people of Iran were crazy fanatics. I never heard in the news the important fact that the US helped to overthrow a democratically elected government in Iran in 1953.
We should give up on the deficit model that tries to pull people back to an idealized way we never were. And all of us need to think about the best ways to improve the news habits that are becoming the main ways we all consume news.
Social media is an increasingly important mediator of how people take in news. Every day we make small decisions usually without thinking about them, which shape the feeds we get. Like going to the dentist, we can practice good news hygiene, by occasionally pausing to vet our main sources. Every few months, spend an hour reading about your main sources of news. Read about them on sources you consider reliable. Read what other people say about that source. Find one story that you understand well and use it to check the biases and reliability of the sources you use. Once you decide that a source is unreliable, kick it out of your feeds.
Embrace the Silos
A lot of people complain that social media is leading to increasing polarization in US society. The reality is that our country is going through a deep demographic and cultural change right now. We are also experiencing class polarization at levels not seen since the early part of the twentieth century. Those real divisions, as well as the ways that some politicians exploit them, are at the root of the recent polarization we are experiencing. There is no evidence that this polarization is being caused by the way people consume information.[iii] What researchers are finding is that the proliferation of media sources has led to much more satisfaction among racial and ethnic minorities as well as political and ideological minorities, as those previously left out of the mainstream find a place to get information that is relevant to them.
Art shows generally have a curator who is very knowledgeable about a particular type of art, who picks the best things to put into a show. Some people are not especially knowledgeable about or interested in information about serious things happening in the world. But most of us know some people who are, who we trust, and whose values and interests are in alignment with our own. Follow the people who you find are good curators. And occasionally vet them and make conscious choices about them.
Follow the Money
The general piece of political advice to ‘follow the money” also applies in media. Commercial media outlets will generally be biased in favor of things that make them money. Most social media platforms are profit-driven enterprises, and their profits come from the number of eyeballs on a story. I suspect that this is leading to an increase in sensationalism, as overstated and outrageous stories and stories about juicy topics will generate more views. It is always worth thinking about the impact of money on what we read, and to shape our feeds accordingly. As you shape your feed, ponder the likely impacts of media ownership and media consolidation, and the drive to provide audiences for advertisers.
Why Consume news?
As I am writing this there is an amazing standoff happening in North Dakota between a company trying to build an oil pipeline and a large protest movement made up of people from the broadest array of Native American tribes at any protest in the history of the country. The federal government just put a temporary stop to the pipeline project as a result of the protests. This is clearly an action of national significance. In my social media feed there are amazing images and constant chatter about the protests.
And there is a virtual news blackout on the mainstream US media. In the olden days that mainstream blacked-out version is all we would have had. While it is unfortunate that a large number of people don’t know that this action happened and continues, enough people know through the alternative media sources to have made a difference in government policy. That is a healthy impact of news.
It is important to be a well-informed global citizen because what we know impacts how we vote, what kinds of actions we take in the public sphere, and how we treat others. Our knowledge and opinions help transform our shared world, and healthy news habits are ones that help us impact that world in positive ways.
[ii] These quotes are from the focus groups I held in the classes of my colleagues Robert Stockwell and Francesca Caparas. One was a developmental level English class. The other was an American Government Class. In the higher level class, I found more sophistication about how to vet sources, but the same level of enthusiasm about being well informed. Thanks to Robert, Francesca, and Daniel De Bolt, who all helped with this project in a variety of ways.