CLEVELAND – The statistics are alarming.
Only 34% of Americans believe that the “mainstream media – like newspaper, television and radio” – fairly and accurately reports information, Gallup reported last October. Pew Research reported around the same time that young adults under 30 “are now almost as likely to trust information from social media sites as information from national news outlets.”
Young people in particular believe that they don’t need to search for news to keep up to date. Instead, as researchers Homero Gil de Zúñiga, Nadine Strauss, and Brigitte Huber found in 2020, young adults believe news will find them on social media “and through other online channels”!
Thomas Jefferson has to roll over in his Monticello grave. Jefferson was a firm believer in news and famously wrote that he would prefer newspapers without government to government without newspapers so long as “every man should have these newspapers and should be able to read them.”
Democracy rests on the existence of a free press that reports news reliably and accurately, provides people with comprehensive facts to help them make informed decisions about public policy, and keeps the feet of democracy’s elected officials in the fire in order to ensure they are accountable to voters.
If young people don’t follow news or appreciate the role news plays in a democracy, they can’t be relied on to safeguard this valuable resource at a time when it’s under attack. And when people live in a murky epistemological realm where they are unsure whether the information they encounter is true, the public cannot make rational decisions about what is best in their interests or those of the larger collective serves.
This problem calls for a solution. The answer is to revitalize America’s civic education, which has declined significantly in recent years, and put a greater focus on helping young people discern truth from untruth in online media, appreciate the nature and importance of news and to understand how their own biases can lead them to have a biased view of reporting.
To help teenagers spot blatant misinformation, citizenship education programs could be adopted by Finland, where media literacy is part of a curriculum starting in preschool. Finnish teachers show students news articles and TikTok videos, which probably explains why they vary so much in accuracy.
Second, citizenship education should liberate students from the common misconception that news is too negative and explain why news must cover the range of unfortunate events in society and expose corruption that threatens the very fabric of democratic society.
Third, news literacy courses should focus on the biases we all express when we read the news. As I’ve documented in my research, people who have strong feelings about an issue exhibit “hostile media bias.” It’s not an objective bias in media coverage, but a belief that people attribute to the news because they perceive news to be biased against their side and in favor of their opponents. Individuals harbor these biases because they fear the news will slander ideas close to their hearts.
We see this hypersensitivity when liberals assume that all Fox news is hopelessly anti-Democrat bias, and when conservatives are known to perceive that mainstream news carries a “liberal bias.” However, a 2016 study of more than 800,000 news articles found: “With the exception of political scandals, major news organizations present issues largely impartially, casting neither Democrats nor Republicans in a particularly favorable or unfavorable light.”
Of course there is bias in the news, but projecting a hostile media bias is a subjective perception typically not rooted in reality. It can lead people to doubt the credibility of news, question its value in society, and even irrationally hate the media, a belief that undermines trust in democracy.
Civic education courses that emphasize the importance of news in democracy can redirect young people by helping them actively follow the news and teaching them to appreciate the crucial role that critical news from all quarters plays in sustaining it of the nation’s democratic project. In an age of misinformation, a media-focused overhaul of our civic education should be a priority for schools across the country.
Richard M. Perloff is Professor of Communications, Political Science and Psychology at Cleveland State University.
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