Most people under 40 are digital natives, they know their way around the internet and they’re acutely aware of the degree to which people are manipulated online.
What can news organizations do to help these generations get factual and trustworthy information amid a torrent of falsehoods coming at them every day?
It’s not an academic question. People in this age group are troubled by misinformation, according to a recent survey of news consumers ages 16 to 40 by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, with 61% saying it is a major problem, 60% somewhat or very concerned that family members have spread misinformation and about half concerned that they’ve even spread it themselves.
Gen Zers and Millennials are as likely to blame the news media for the spread of misinformation as they are politicians or social media platforms. Perhaps more importantly for the industry, more than half of survey respondents believe that the media have the most responsibility for addressing the problem, with the government, politicians, social media companies and social media users following close behind.
Yet most news organizations, according to people who study media literacy and the spread of misinformation, have yet to figure out broad-scale, effective ways to reach these age groups with journalism that addresses misinformation on the topics that most interest them and delivers it in engaging and authentic ways on the platforms they use most often.
The stakes are enormous, both for the industry’s future and the health of society. If one of the news media’s roles is to establish a set of trusted and common facts so that the public can have honest debates about the issues, journalists need to be at the forefront of ensuring that these generations have a grounding in facts.
In surveying people ages 16 to 40, the Media Insight Project captured a large segment of the population, from teenagers in high school to those who are well established in their adult lives. The information needs and news habits of this group – and how they process and respond to misinformation – are thus varied.
But even within this broad cohort, concerns about misinformation are fairly consistent across the age groups surveyed, including Gen Z, younger Millennials and older Millennials.
“A lot of people have this stereotype that older people are more susceptible to misinformation, but we haven’t found that to be the case,” said Angie Drobnic Holan, the editor-in-chief of the fact-checking service PolitiFact. “It’s really a misconception to think that any generation is immune to the problems of misinformation. Maybe the dynamics are different, but I’m never surprised by research that shows that Gen Z and Millennials have concerns about misinformation.”
Digitally native does not equal news-literate
It’s also a misconception that these “digital natives,” nimble as they are online, are better at rooting out misinformation than any other age group, according to people who have studied the topic.
These generations may have grown up on the internet, but their education has not always included training in how to navigate its many disparate networks, said Sam Wineburg, a professor of education at Stanford University and founder of the Stanford History Education Group, which has studied how Gen Z processes information on the internet. He and his team have developed the concept of “lateral reading” to describe a method people use to evaluate the validity of digital information by opening new browser tabs to check and verify facts as they go.
[pulldata align=”right” stat=”61%” context=”of Americans ages 16-40 say the spread of misinformation is a major problem”]
News organizations, he said, need to understand that while this group is native to using devices, that doesn’t necessarily make them any more adept than other ages at discerning the credibility of the information those devices spew out. “We need to kind of demolish this idea that people are navigating digital media with alacrity and smoothness,” he said.
Especially with the youngest people in this cohort, there is also likely to be overall confusion about what is credible in news and what is not, said Peter Adams, director of the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit organization that teaches students and other members of the public how to read critically and spot misinformation. This confusion is then exacerbated and exploited by politicians and others who call legitimate journalism “fake news.”
It makes sense that people under 40 would be concerned about being manipulated, because they see every day how easy it is to do it, said Claire Wardle, co-director of the Information Futures Lab at Brown University. “Everything they create is manipulated in some way – adding filters, doing things on Snapchat, editing video. They know how this works,” she said. This age group, she noted, invented the “#nofilter” hashtag to denote content that is not manipulated.
Showing journalists’ standards and practices
Gen Zers and Millennials came of age at a time when traditional news outlets were losing or had already lost their role as “gatekeepers” that determined what information to disseminate to the public. But with the gates now gone, these generations get news and information from a vast array of sources, including social media platforms, digital news outlets, television, radio and apps. On average, according to the Media Insight Project survey, respondents consume news from about six different traditional sources or social media platforms at least weekly.
The varied news diet among under-40 audiences makes it even more important for news organizations to find ways to set themselves apart by showing what makes their content more credible than any other person on social media posting about COVID-19 or politics, no matter how authoritative they seem or how real their experiences may be.
That means explaining how journalism works, how journalists decide what to cover, why they cover certain topics, what terminology they use or avoid, and their guidelines on the use of anonymous sources. These are techniques taught by Trusting News, a project of API and the Reynolds Journalism Institute that helps journalists to build trust with their communities.
“Individual journalists on social media can say, ‘Look, here is what we know you’re hearing elsewhere, and here is what journalists do to verify that, and here is how I know what I’m sharing with you is true,’ ” said Joy Mayer, the director of Trusting News.
Another reason to be up front about sources is to make clear to readers whether a piece of content has an agenda. The old distinctions news outlets once used to help the reader differentiate between opinion and news – they were discrete “sections” in print – are lost on those who didn’t grow up reading the newspaper. Yet news organizations still sometimes organize their content around sections that made sense in print but do not translate online, where people encounter articles in a number of different ways. To those readers, it’s all just “content,” often driven by social media.
At Poynter’s MediaWise, which teaches people how to be more critical consumers of content online, about 10% of the workshops are aimed at explaining the difference between opinion and impartial news, said the program’s director, Alex Mahadevan. “It’s especially difficult since they usually just see a headline or screenshot of a headline on Twitter or Instagram without the full context — or label — indicating that it’s from an opinion piece. In essence, on a social feed, news and opinion get all jumbled together and are difficult to tell apart — for anyone,” he said.
(Mediawise tapped one of its ambassadors, Washington Post TikTok guy Dave Jorgenson, to do a video explaining the distinction.)
The challenge of putting complex ideas in short videos
Publishers seeking to address misinformation have little choice about putting content on the social platforms most populated by Gen Z and Millennials. While the Media Insight Project survey revealed that some news consumers younger than 40 turn to – and some pay for – news from traditional news outlets, they get a majority of their news from social media. According to the survey, 71% of respondents get their news from social media platforms at least daily and 91% at least weekly. Gen Zers are more likely to get news daily on social media platforms (74%) compared with older Millennials (68%).
“If I had an elevator speech with a major publisher or a group of publishers about what to do, I’d say create a consortium and come up with a really high-quality series of TikTok videos, which is where Gen Z is going.”
Members of Gen Z are also more likely than both younger and older Millennials to rely on TikTok for news (40% vs. 27% and 21%, respectively) and on Snapchat (32% vs. 22% and 17%).
News organizations seeking to do fact-checks or explainers thus need to be on these platforms, since that is where misinformation also lives.
A growing number of newsrooms are putting content on TikTok, according to a report published this month by Nic Newman of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism on how publishers are learning to use the platform. “News organizations are attracted by the fast-growing audience and younger demographic, but they are also motivated by the desire to provide reliable news, amid fears about widespread misinformation on the platform,” Newman wrote.
CNN’s Max Foster, Newman wrote, started his TikTok account “when he noticed his own teenage children using the platform.”
Holan said PolitiFact naturally gravitated to TikTok to address misinformation that the team saw trending there. She cited, for example, a PolitiFact video debunking a claim that environmentalists trashed the site of the Glastonbury arts festival, where Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke this year. (PolitiFact’s TikTok account in October won an award from New York University for excellence in non-traditional reporting.)
Jorgenson, who helped found The Washington Post’s TikTok, which has 1.5 million followers, is an often-cited example of a journalist who has figured out the platform and its quirky way of blending factual information on trending topics with entertainment and humor, which often includes a bit of self-deprecation.
“We see this as a way to share our reporting with new audiences and believe it’s important to break down perceived barriers for people to engage with all types of journalism, from deeply reported investigations to lighter news, and still feel like they were entertained and informed (all while humanizing our work),” said Lauren Saks, the executive producer of video at The Washington Post.
The Post’s blend sometimes includes efforts to debunk mis- and disinformation, she said, citing as an example a video posted before Election Day explaining how election deniers running for office could sow doubt about the results.
The Washington Post’s Dave Jorgenson is frequently cited as a journalist who has figured out the TikTok formula. (tiktok/@davejorgenson)
Those who have had success with TikTok say a personality-driven approach like Jorgenson’s is more likely to win engagement on the platform, whose algorithm rewards interaction – the more people watch, like or comment on a video, the more popular it becomes. Work showcasing a newsroom, its talent and the people behind the scenes is part of the recipe, as opposed to a dry recitation of stories built for another platform.
But not all newsrooms have the resources to dedicate a reporter to TikTok. So one question is whether smaller news outlets have the capacity to do the kind of work, like fact-checks or explanatory journalism, that could stand out from everyone else on these platforms, said Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth College who studies misinformation in the news media. Video work is not part of the core competency of most newsrooms, he said, so the challenge is doing it in a way that helps set the content apart from everything else on the internet.
“How does any audience member distinguish between a reporter in a room talking into their camera and a random person in a room talking to their phone? Maybe there’s work to be done on this, but I’m not sure it’s something that mainstream outlets are optimized for,” he said.
Stanford’s Wineburg said media organizations might want to band together to figure it out.
“If I had an elevator speech with a major publisher or a group of publishers about what to do, I’d say create a consortium and come up with a really high-quality series of TikTok videos, which is where Gen Z is going,” he said.
YouTube in particular is a missed opportunity for news organizations to address misinformation, Wardle says, since so many young people use it as their primary source of news and searching the platform can lead down so many rabbit holes.
The most effective misinformation-debunking journalism often involves deep dives showing the motives of those who spread falsehoods, tracing their origins and examining the stakes for the public. Can such deep dives be done on TikTok?
“People’s attention spans are addled by this medium,” said Wineburg. “We’re in an attention economy, and people’s concentration spans are shorter.”
Mistrust of institutions
Ryan Sorrell, the editor of the Kansas City Defender, a nonprofit news outlet aimed at Black Millennials and Gen Zers, believes that deep journalism can be done on TikTok, and says he even sees investigative journalism there. The key, he says, is designing the content for the platform. Traditional outlets, he said, tend to design their content first, then wedge it awkwardly onto social media platforms without regard to the specific characteristics that make those platforms work.
“We see these platforms as ends in and of themselves, and each of our platforms have different audiences on them,” he said. “And each platform has its own ethos and culture as well.”
As for disinformation, Sorrell is most concerned about it coming from authorities like the police, he says, who have an interest in disseminating falsehoods about crime and law enforcement’s response. He cited a story from last year in which Kansas City police shot and killed a man in a gas station in what the police called a shootout with an armed man. Gas station surveillance footage leaked later showed the man, Malcolm Johnson, was not armed. The Defender recently published a piece about the media’s treatment of Johnson’s killing.
“We see these platforms as ends in and of themselves, and each of our platforms have different audiences on them. And each platform has its own ethos and culture as well.”
News organizations that parrot authority figures or government officials unskeptically – a process sometimes criticized as “stenography” – are contributing to the public’s lack of understanding and to a lack of trust among age groups that are already skeptical of institutions.
The Media Insight Project survey found that only about a quarter of respondents have a positive view of the news media generally.
Teenagers, the News Literacy Project’s Adams notes, are particularly susceptible to an anti-institutional attitude, which could extend to big media organizations and leave them vulnerable to falsehoods or shoddy sources. Then the teens hear about polls showing low trust in media or hear politicians talking about “fake news,” and a feedback loop takes hold, Adams said. That is another reason news outlets might find more success in building their social videos around a personality rather than their institutional brand.
The Long Beach Post in California has attempted this with a correspondent dedicated to social media, Jake Gotta. The audience he targets on Instagram and TikTok — where he has an “opinionated voice” — includes people who are not actively searching for news but have an interest in complex local issues such as real estate, parking or housing. Many of those people are looking for voices to explain what’s happening, he said. The Long Beach Post’s leadership knows that Gotta’s work “is reaching a different audience they ordinarily would not be able to reach,” he said.
The key to this kind of approach, says Trusting News’ Mayer, may be the difference between affective and cognitive trust, a concept she says she refers to often in her work. “I think about this a lot with social media because journalists are really good at cognitive trust, which is like, ‘here is a bulleted list of reasons we’re credible,’ and then we list our sourcing, our ethics, our standards, etc. But affective trust is more, do I feel like you’re one of us, do I feel like we’re on the same team?
“In many cases, the formal costume of journalism that we sometimes put on prevents us from being relatable,” she said.
One question is whether the youngest of this group, such as teenagers, might be more open to being corrected because they are less invested in believing the falsehood. Misinformation often preys on people’s biases or stereotypes, and it can be upsetting to be corrected on a firmly held belief. People who are still formulating their world view might be more open to someone who helps them figure it out, said Adams, though he said that is speculation in the absence of data.
MediaWise’s Mahadevan, however, is hopeful on that front, based on his own experience.
He said that in his classes he has found that younger people are less likely than older students to buy into attempts to politicize fact-checking, such as calling it “fake news,” which is usually done by politicians who are being called out for sharing false information. “I think younger generations are more open to hearing from fact-checkers and journalists,” he said.
Kevin Loker contributed to this report.