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Study says students can’t tell news from ads

A study at Stanford university finds that young people have trouble telling whether online news is real or fake.


We live in turbulent times; trust in the media is at an all time low, and mainstream news outlets seem incapable of telling the truth, or even being able to accurately predict election results such as the recent US election, and Brexit. With reporters moonlighting as campaign workers, and online ads posing as news stories, it seems more important than ever to be vigilant about what we read online. This is an opinion shared among a large and growing number of people across the world. So how did we get here? A Stanford study suggests we may simply be gullible.

The study, which was conducted on 7,804 students from middle school through to college, is the largest ever to investigate how teenagers process the information they read online. The study has found that our youth has considerable difficulty judging whether the online content they consume is accurate and trustworthy. In the study, 82% of middle-schoolers couldn’t tell the difference between an advertisement marked “sponsored content” or a real article on a news site. Two of three middle-schoolers couldn’t see any reason to mistrust an article written by a bank executive on why young people need more financial planning help. Four of ten high schoolers believed that a headline and a picture of a deformed flower provided strong evidence for radiation leaks from the Fukushima power plant without a source or image location to back up the claim.


More and more schools are starting to teach their students “media literacy” as a weapon against believing untrustworthy information. A free social-studies curriculum offered by Stanford university teaches students to judge the veracity of historical sources and has now been downloaded 3.5 million times, according to Sam Wineburg, professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and lead author of the study. Devorah Heitner, author of “Screenwise” and founder of consulting service Raising Digital Natives recommends that parents join in their children’s interests and help them evaluate information before believing it.

The need for this is important, now more than ever: According to a 2015 study by Media Insight Project, 88% of 18 year olds receive their news through social media, and platforms like Facebook and Twitter may be more treacherous than most. Contrary to what one might think, social media platforms are privately owned and thus not protected by free speech. These platforms do filter content and it’s very easy for someone to fall into an echo chamber, receiving only posts they’re interested in, on top of having opposing views removed.

Professor Wineburg suggests that children should learn to use some techniques used by professional fact-checkers. He suggests not always trusting a website’s “about” page, and instead leaving it and researching the organization or author from other sources. He also reminds us that a high Google rating does not automatically mean reliability, since Google ranks websites on a variety of factors, including popularity.

source: Wall Street Journal


David F.
A grad student in experimental physics, David is fascinated by science, space and technology. When not buried in lecture books, he enjoys movies, gaming and mountainbiking

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