I would like to think that many of us older folks these days wished that the era of responsible journalism continued into the digital realm. There is this perception that journalists and reporters do seem to have a higher standard of ideals and responsibility in the past when they wrote a piece of news that was worthy to be published. Go online to day, and you are immediately overwhelmed by the sheer amount of news, and picking and choosing the right kind makes life all the more complicated. In fact, with the kind of trolling that we see happening online, not to mention many people thinking that The Onion is an actual news site, things do not look too bright for the future of critical thinking in humanity. In fact, a recent Stanford study discovered that more than 80% of students out there are not able to tell the difference between writing that is actually sponsored content or “native advertising”, as opposed to an actual news article. Either the wordsmiths who crafted out these sponsored content are so good at their trade, that they put journalists to shame, or the students aren’t actually thinking too much, or at all.
This same group of students also found it a challenge to figure out whether the news story that they saw on social media was real or not, basing their conclusions on strange and perhaps, even irrelevant reasons. Stanford’s History Education Group took up this survey of over 7,800 students, which means they do have a pretty wide pool to pick from, and the ages ranged from middle school all the way through to college. How did this study come about with their conclusion? The sample of students were provided with a bunch of articles in which they had to review, before describing them. This will be followed by a personal rating as to whether such news could be trusted or not.
For instance, middle school students had to rate an article on financial planning. The proverbial million dollar question is this -- was the article written by a bank executive, or was it sponsored by a bank? Most students mentioned that the author’s allegiance, or whether it was sponsored by a bank, ought to be factors to be taken into consideration concerning its credibility or accuracy.
In a different exercise, students had to check out the homepage of Slate, a news site, before deciding on which segments were news or advertising. The standard banner ad as advertising was a dead giveaway, but over 80% also believed at the same time that a native ad was the real deal, even when it had been labeled with the words “sponsored content” in a clear manner.
Professor Sam Wineburg, who is the lead author of the report and founder of the Stanford History Education Group, said, “Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite to be true.” Well, what do you think of this development -- should steps be taken to make sure our younger generation are more perceptive in their thinking despite being proficient digitally?
You can check out the transcript where NPR's Kelly McEvers sat down with Professor Sam Wineburg concerning his study which inspired this story here.