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Project Information Literacy News Study: A new study on new adults and news

For this generation, news is social, visual, and fast. News is often overwhelming,  and it can be difficult for students to tell what news is true and what is false. While most students think news is important to democracy, they do not define news by traditional standards, nor do they necessarily assign authority based on the platform or authors from which news comes. Students know they need to invest the time and critical thinking to assemble, evaluate, and interpret news as it is delivered in the 21st century, and although many students make this effort, others do not. Sharing news on social networks provides some, but not all, students with a valuable opportunity to interact with their communities, whether sharing breaking news from The New York Times or political memes from Facebook.  How students engage with news (executive summary)

Dr. Alison Head and her Project Information Literacy (PIL) research team recently released the findings of a new national study on college students and how they consume and interact with a vast and deeply polarized news ecosystem. The News Study findings are the result of an online survey of 5,844 respondents and telephone interviews with 37 participants from 11 diverse colleges and universities. The research also included computational analysis of Twitter data associated with respondents, as well as a Twitter panel of 135,891 college-age people.

In the study’s press release, Dr. Head shared:

News is fast, social, and visual and typically delivered to students in posts, alerts, tweets, and conversations that stream at them throughout the day. And young news consumers are left to assemble and interpret what news means, while many take this evaluative step, others do not.

So what? The News Study’s Executive Summary offers Five Research Takeaways as well as Six Recommendations.

The Research Takeaways present several pieces of evidence that can guide our work, including a dramatic gulf between students’ news seeking habits for academic versus personal use.  For instance, what young people do to find resources for academic tasks does not resemble the behaviors for personal tasks.

The six Recommendations can be seen as a call to action meant to inform our own work as educators and librarians–how and what we teach, what we need to curate, the importance of context and inquiry strategies. The university and K12 library communities will not be totally surprised at the News Study’s Recommendations–they are the stuff our National School Library Standards and the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education are made of.  They are what we are about. They are in our DNA.  And the actions they suggest offer significant rationale for librarian information literacy leadership across disciplines and curricula, and in school, public and academic settings.

Five Research Takeaways

  1. There are many pathways to news–not only on social media. Today’s young news consumers are “multi-modal”: 67% of the survey respondents received news from five pathways to news during the preceding week. Most common were discussions with peers (93%), while 70% got news from discussions with professors. Social media was another common source (89%) and to a lesser degree, online newspapers (76%) and news feeds (55%).
  2. News knows no personal boundaries, so students follow selectively. More than two-thirds of the respondents said the sheer amount of news was overwhelming; half agreed it was difficult to tell the most important news stories on a given day (51%). News digests, such as the Skimm and BuzzFeed’s “Top Five,” were mentioned by interviewees as being essential for keeping up. Many students were judicious news seekers, only engaging with news topics that “directly affect me,” such as traffic and weather (90%) or national politics (89%).
  3. Tension exists between idealized views of journalism and a distrust of today’s news. Eight in 10 students agreed news is “necessary in a democracy” but the news, most said, had fallen short of their idealistic standards of accuracy, independence, and fairness. Staying current often meant navigating a complex minefield of misinformation, commercial interests, affective pleas for their clicks, “fast news” from social media, and political manipulation; more than a third (36%) said, “fake news” had made them distrust the credibility of any news.
  4. Students share news on social media as stewards of what’s important to know. A majority of respondents (58%) had shared or retweeted news in the preceding week; many shared political memes (33%) or stories about national politics (29%). Females (70%) shared more news than males (28%). Almost half (44%) indicated that they shared news to have a voice about a larger cause.
  5. Traditional standards for evaluating news are increasingly problematic. A wide gulf exists between students’ news-seeking habits for academic versus personal use, with most relying on library databases (66%) for courses and social media (56%) in their personal lives. Criteria taught for assessing academic information were of limited use when applied to newer social media forms, where currency and authority are less defined.

Recommendations

  1. Teach students “knowledge in action” skills early on and throughout their education. Educators and librarians need to teach their students how to frame questions of their own while helping them developmental and intellectual frameworks for credibility testing of information that comes (and will come) in different genres and formats.
  2. Integrate news discussions into the classroom. Educators and librarians must incorporate news into classroom discussions, leveraging their authority as guides and models in order to help prepare students as effective news consumers in their academic, workplace, personal, and civic roles.
  3. Reconsider how we teach evaluation. Librarians and educators need to expand how they teach critical thinking about information to include news sources. Additionally, they should incorporate strategies for evaluation based on content not format to develop students’ agency in engaging with news.
  4. Bring the value of context back to news coverage. News organizations need to provide hypertext links and add valuable contextual information to news stories while increasing investment in “explanatory” and “solutions journalism.”
  5. Journalists need to continue embracing new forms of storytelling and new audience engagement strategies. Journalists need to listen to a wider array of voices and expand the diversity of coverage, particularly in stories about youth and minorities, while increasing transparency about how they cover news.
  6. We need to pressure social media companies to do much more to empower young news consumers. Social media companies must behave responsibly in serving young news consumers by ensuring algorithms give greater weight to fact-checked news items, offer news digests based on reliable sources, and provide clear indicators of manipulated media.

Please share this study broadly.

Alison J. Head, John Wihbey, P. Takis Metaxas, Margy MacMillan, and Dan Cohen, “How Students Engage with News: Five Takeaways for Educators, Journalists, and Librarians,” Project Information Literacy Research Institute. (October 16, 2018).

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Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza

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