Incoming Undergraduate Students Struggle to Accurately Evaluate Legitimacy of Online News
A Review of:
Evanson, C., & Sponsel, J. (2019). From syndication to misinformation: How undergraduate students engage with and evaluate digital news. Communications in Information Literacy, 13(2), 228-250. https://doi.org/10.15760/comminfolit.2019.13.2.6
Objective – To determine how new undergraduate students access, share, and evaluate the credibility of digital news.
Design – Asynchronous online survey and activity.
Setting – A small private, liberal arts college in the southeastern United States of America.
Subjects – Participants included 511 incoming first-year college students.
Methods – Using the Moodle Learning Management System, incoming first-year students completed a mandatory questionnaire that included multiple choice, Likert scale, open-ended, and true/false questions related to news consumption. Two questions asked students to identify which news sources and social networking sites they have used recently, and the next two questions asked students to define fake news and rate the degree to which fake news impacts them personally and the degree to which it impacts society. The end of the survey presented students with screenshots of three news stories and asked them to reflect on how they would evaluate the claim in the story, their confidence level in the claim, and whether or not they would share this news item on social media. The three items chosen represent certain situations that commonly cause confusion for news consumers: (a) a heading that does not match the text of the article, (b) a syndicated news story, and (c) an impostor URL and fake news story. Researchers coded the student responses using both preset and emergent codes.
Main Results – Eighty-two percent of students reported using at least one social media site to access political news in the previous seven days. Students reported believing that fake news is a worrying trend for society, with 86% labelling it either a “moderate” or “extreme” barrier to society’s ability to recognize accurate information. However, they expressed less concern about their own ability to navigate an information environment in which fake news is prevalent, with 51% agreeing that it has only somewhat of an effect on their own ability to effectively navigate digital information. Of the three news items presented to them, students expressed the least confidence (an average of 1.55/4) and least interest in sharing (12%) the first news item, in which the heading does not match the text. However, only 14% of respondents noted this mismatch. In evaluations of the second item, an AP news item on the Breitbart website, 35% of students noted the website on which the article was found, but fewer noted that the original source is the Associated Press. Student responses to the third article, a fake news item from a website masquerading as an NBC website, show that 37% of students believed the source to come from a legitimate NBC source. Only 7% of students recognized the unusual URL, and 24% of respondents indicated that they might share this news item on social media.
Conclusion – The study finds that impostor URLs and syndicated news items might confuse students into misevaluating the information before them, and that librarians and other instructors should raise awareness of these tactics.
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