Trust in the media is at an all time low.
That is, according to market research firm, Gallup, which puts trust levels amongst US adults under fifty as low as 26 percent versus around 50 percent who put a “great deal or fair amount” of faith in their media outlets and broadcaster back at the start of 21st century.
In many ways, this is unsurprising. After all, this is a statistic that comes during a year in which Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of 2016 went to “post-truth”; a year in which political movements often hinged on emotional poignancy and instinctive appeal above black and white reason; a year in which, at least on the social stage, facts fell out of fashion.
Grand political rises and falls, however, are only the symptoms of this new skepticism. The causes have been visible for some time, and are embedded in the way our news is broadcast, and the way it is received.
First of all, it’s digital. ‘Broadcast’ already seems to have become an archaic term: instead, try ‘posted’. The millennial generation in the US, that is largely those who are teenagers today, now consumes over three quarters of their news online. Here, Facebook leads the way, with 47 percent of teens using the social media platform as their primary news resource, followed by platforms like YouTube and Twitter. The appeal is in a service which is always live and always new.
However, the drawback of digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter being used as news channels – or, more accurately, newsfeeds – is that there is often too much news to digest. Without editorial moderation, users are inundated with content, all of which vies for attention on a narrow screen with sensational headlines and click-bait imagery.
What’s more alarming is that editorial control, the kind administered by traditional journalists and broadcasters in CNN, FOX and the New York Times, is replaced by an algorithm designed to promote content for entertainment, not facts. It is this algorithm that got Facebook into significant trouble following the 2016 Presidential Election when it was revealed that Fake News articles with titles like “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning the Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Nationwide”, received over 2 million shares and comments on Facebook, and stories of the Pope endorsing Donald Trump, 961,000 likes and comments. All of these pieces of Fake News had been created by websites motivated by click-through advertising revenue, and exploiting social media algorithms that prioritize sensationalism above, well, the truth.
Facebook has since stepped up its game by adapting its algorithm and placing more editorial checks in place on its site, but the problems still remain. In a study carried out by Common Sense Media, fewer than half of teenagers interviewed felt that they were able to tell a Fake News story from a real news story online. Receiving news online requires more analytical faculties than ever before. Young people, and indeed everyone who gets information online, need to become detectives of their own newsfeeds.
Fake News, and arguably too much news, is a problem for everyone – but most particularly, it poses a challenge for educators. Teachers have a duty to ensure that students look at news with a balance of skepticism and curiosity, and a healthy awareness of different perspectives, giving them the tools to navigate a digital minefield of clickbait, sensationalism and Fake News.