Understanding Media Habits Among First-Year Students

Gregg Grenier, Director of Community Engagement, Mount Ida College

October 11, 2017

This past January, our institution posted about “Where do we go from here?” to the NASPA Lead Initiative blog – we were not sure what to do or where to go. Over the past summer at Orientation, our incoming students kept asking, “in the age of fake news, how do we know what to trust?” All of our students (even ourselves) are asking this common question every single day – and wondering just as much as to how to address it. What does it mean to live in a world where #FakeNews is mentioned at every turn? How do we even begin to work with students to sift through the hundreds, if not thousands, of interactions with some type of news each week and be able to determine fact from fiction? Do students actually care about what is going on in the world? In reflecting upon all of these questions, the staff of Mount Ida’s Center for Community Engagement began to ponder what we could do to continue working with students, particularly first-year students, to engage in discourse on how they consume and synthesize news. The answer became very clear: we needed to build students’ civic literacy and skills – and that is how our Media Literacy workshops were born. What follows is an analysis and discussion about our first-year students’ habits and thoughts about the ways in which they interact with and make determinations about news.

Mount Ida’s Center for Community Engagement, established in July 2016, and serves as the formal home for all aspects of the curricular and co-curricular service and civic experiences at Mount Ida College. Stemming from its coalition that was formed as part of the Voter Friendly Campus designation process, the Center has been collaborating with Mount Ida’s Library staff to create programming that will enhance our campus community’s information literacy, especially as it relates to consumption of media. Our goals were two-fold: 1) gain quantitative insight as to how first-year students interact with media and 2) provide a space for students to discuss fake news, media bias, and social interactions regarding this topic. To gain access to as many first-year students as we could, we worked with our institution’s first-year seminar program to schedule individual class times to run these workshops for as many faculty that wanted to have us. We have completed 8 of these workshops to date (with 8 more to go), with the goal of interacting with 85% of Mount Ida’s first-year student population.

As part of these workshops, students completed a pre-survey to gain an understanding on how often students check the news, the outlets they check for news, who they talk about it with, and what their own definition of fake news was. The responses to these questions have been fascinating – the majority of students are really in-tune to what is going on in the world and are talking about current events amongst the communities they feel most comfortable with. These base-line results have helped us formulate the in-person workshops we have been conducting because it gives a better way to relate to students and meet them where they are at in terms of media literacy. For example, 83% of first-year students check the news at least weekly, which is higher than the national average of 70% according to the Pew Research Center. Also, more than 7-in-10 student respondents get their news from a source other than TV (i.e. social media, friends, and family), which is much higher than the national average of 50% for 18-29 year olds. While we are still collecting data, these early statistics give us a unique understanding as to how Generation Z college students are changing the way in which we produce and discuss news. When we finally entered the classroom, our discussion focused on understanding the differences between media bias and fake news. Students are tasked to determine bias in pre-selected news articles, which has anecdotally resulted in the majority of students not wanting any bias in the news they consume – this has the potential to redefine how news is broadcasted. Finally, students engage in a conversation where they are presented with questions from the survey (among others) and must move to a corner of the room that aligns with their answer. This stimulates conversation and is able to depict how their classmates view the world in real-time.  

Even though we have just begin this research on our campus, it is enthralling to get a glimpse into the minds of the next generation of college students. Understanding how they consume and synthesize news will have a lasting impact on programming and education as we continue to figure out how best to support and engage our students in being co-creators of an inclusive and civically engaged society.

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