How Students Access, Filter and Evaluate Digital News: Choices That Shape What They Consume and the Implications for News Literacy Education
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Being an informed citizen in the digital age requires the ability to sift through an avalanche of news online and identify content that is credible and diverse. News literacy, a topic with a small but increasing presence in high school and college curricula, is concerned with training students to be discerning news consumers. Assessments of news literacy typically gauge the effects of exposure to news literacy curricula measured through student analysis of media messages selected by researchers. This exploratory, mixed-methods study instead examined how students with no formal news literacy instruction searched for news on a computer using their typical routine, their process of filtering and evaluating news about a topic of interest, and their awareness of their choices when accessing news online that shape what they consume. This study contributes to the understanding of what digital media concepts, cognitive strategies and evaluation criteria warrant targeting or greater emphasis in news literacy curricula. Survey results revealed that participants (n=244) typically spend a significant amount of time consuming video and written news, largely through digital platforms and mostly on a computer. They are mostly information scanners and more often stumble upon news online than seek out specific news of interest. Participants have a strong social interest in news, like to share stories with others, and are often trusting of their social networks and technology to filter the news they consume. Concurrent think-aloud protocols and subsequent interviews with a subset of survey respondents (n=37) found that participants often did not pay close attention to the process by which they accessed and filtered news online, doing so in a state of automaticity instead of thinking critically. When asked to explain the thought processes underlying their news searches, a significant percentage of students lacked a conscious awareness or understanding of the strategies and evaluation criteria that potentially affect the credibility and diversity of news consumed. As a result, students' online news habits often placed them at risk for consuming unreliable news and for adopting a hive mindset or being in a news silo.