In an age where every second is valuable, today’s news is a constant stream of sensational stories and short headlines written to grab attention. Surveys show that as of 2017, two-thirds of adults consume some news via social media. At the same time, the press is under scrutiny for producing “fake” content, so it is increasingly important for students to become smart consumers of news.
While news on Facebook and Twitter may be widely accessible and convenient, inadequate vetting and the inability to hold producers accountable allow people to spread false information like wildfire. In recent memory are the lies spread after Las Vegas: there were multiple shooters; the single shooter was both a member of Antifa and an Islamic terrorist; and famous porn stars were rumored to be missing “fathers.” This misinformation had heavy consequences for people wrongly accused of murder and also helped groups inappropriately push their agendas. Though we are unlikely to face situations this extreme, students will not be exposed to misinformation to begin with if they get news from organizations that have standards and a responsibility to be accurate.
Receiving information from a handle of trusted sources is not enough, however. While the contents of a story would be true, different organizations could omit some key information, so students must search through a variety of sources. A study of Fox, CNN and MSNBC shows that each outlet covers stories in varying frequencies with different angles. Over the past few months, MSNBC overwhelmingly covered Michael Flynn pleading guilty compared to Fox, and Fox discussed the NFL anthem protests more than both CNN and MSNBC. A limited number of news organizations do not give readers the information necessary to a complete picture, but diversifying sources can adequately fill in the gaps.
The digital focus of mainstream media can sensationalize news by prioritizing headlines to attract page views and generate revenue. Proper news literacy will deter students from falling for clickbait and founding their beliefs on superficial information.
Widespread literacy is a huge feat, but students in college are capable of fostering communities that will grow into a more news-literate electorate which bases policy on better-informed ideas. The last and most important way for students to do this is by focusing on the last of the five W’s of journalism: why. Identifying why the causes and impacts of stories are important will discern sensationalism from the true weight of events. A common understanding of what is fact, what is fiction, what is important and what is pushing a narrative to drive people apart will help students develop more informed attitudes and beliefs.
Kosinski is a journalism freshman from San Rafael, California.