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The Daily Deluge

How college students are getting their news, and how educators can help

October 18, 2018
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College students can’t escape the news — but, according to a new study from Project Information Literacy, they need more guidance on how to navigate the onslaught of stories that fill their social media feeds.

The researchers looked at nearly 6,000 college students at 11 institutions to see how they get their news, and what news they’re getting. They also evaluated the Twitter feeds of more than 100,000 college-age students.

What they found is that respondents believed that news was important, with 82 percent agreeing that news was essential to democracy.

But, unsurprisingly given the daily deluge of national news, almost 70 percent of students reported being “overwhelmed” by the amount of news, and 51 percent found it difficult to identify what the most important news of the day was. Many were particularly frustrated by how their cell phones could act as a black hole of news, with no social media platform being free of references to current events.

"News interrupts my life a lot," said one life and physical sciences major. "[...] I'm looking at friends' pictures and enjoying myself and then there's videos about violence in Gaza and I think, 'Oh God, I can't avoid news!'"

That's a feeling that older adults can relate to, too. But unlike older generations, the college students surveyed had a broader definition of news. It isn't just content reported and vetted by journalists — news can come in the form of political memes, YouTube videos, comedy sketches, or Reddit threads, as well as in more traditional formats. Because they engage with the news in more ways than any generation before them, they're eager for help in navigating and prioritizing the constant stream coursing through their various apps and platforms.

Many students reported that they already had a strategy to navigate the news, which included using the educators in their lives as resources to both get news and help them understand it. Seventy percent said that they get some of their news from their professors.

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News is work; it’s not a leisurely activity,” says Project Information Literacy executive director Alison Head.

With professors already acting in some sense as a gatekeeper to news, the researchers who led the study offered advice for educators and librarians on how to leverage their position:  

Help students test information as they get it: As students consume information, they need to be thinking about how they’re going to cross-reference it with other sources, asking themselves what context is missing, and evaluating the source. The Project Information Literacy researchers call these skills “knowledge in action.” Educators and librarians can help students understand how knowledge is constructed and can teach the skills to take on multiple arguments at the same time, accepting that often, there’s not one easy answer. “It’s critical thinking x 1,000,” says Project Information Literacy executive director and principal investigator Alison Head. News is work; it’s not a leisurely activity.

Integrate news discussions into the classroom. College students are already reading stories that connect to their coursework — STEM majors are reading more about technological advancements, and education majors are clicking on education stories. Educators should incorporate current events related to their fields into the classroom, strengthening the connections between what’s going on inside the classroom and in the outside world, and helping students hone their own authority when it comes to certain subject matters.

Bring the value of context back to news coverage. News is coming at college students with lightning speed, and sometimes breaking news accounts are necessarily bare bones. The researchers recommend that journalists do more to provide links in their stories that add context, but educators, too, can help fill out students’ understanding of current events. Librarians can help by connecting students with university resources they might not be familiar with, that can help them fill in the holes of what they know. Alex Hodges, the director of the Monroe C. Gutman Library at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says that students come to universities, and even graduate school, with varying experiences of library access and resources, with fewer and fewer K–12 schools having designated librarians. They may not know much about how librarians can help them. 

“A lot of students need to be oriented or refreshed as to what’s possible,” when it comes to checking information, he says.

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All the News that's Fit to Meme

The study asked college students about the news topics they'd engaged with during the past week. The top five results:

1. Traffic and weather (90 percent)

2. National government and politics (89 percent)

3. Political memes (82 percent)

4. Schools and education (81 percent)

5. Crime and public safety (78 percent)

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Civics and History College and Career Language and Literacy