Students, Traditional Media, and Fake News

By Samantha Daggett, Beca Delvaux & Josh Buntin


Newspapers are out, and fake news is in. Or is it? Fake news, according to the University of Michigan, is a false and fabricated story and has no reputable facts, sources, or quotes. For example, the website The Onion features satirical and fictional “news” but looks authentic from the outside and at times has been taken seriously. Fake news can often come about through rumors or being filtered through so many sources, and it becomes distorted like a game of “telephone.”

The “Knowledge is Power” stand outside the Cofrin Center for Biodiversity at UW-Green Bay, with print academic media for students to take for free. (Photo by Josh Buntin)

Social media, where people can post anything they want, has become more popular, while traditional sources of media, such as newspapers, magazines, and local TV news, become less popular. The circulation of daily newspapers declined to five million in 2020, down from nearly six million in circulation in 2019, according to Pew Research Center, but circulation of online publications was up 30%, according to the same study. 2020 saw high numbers of news engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and the 2020 election, but declined in 2021, according to a Statista study. However, there is potential for a rebound.

Where do college students get their news? According to the Pew Research Center, 84% of social media users are under 30 years old. Between 2019 and 2022, the majority of US adults used Facebook as their primary news source, followed by YouTube, according to Statista. In a survey conducted by the COMM Voice at UW-Green Bay (UWGB), students were asked about their perceptions of traditional media, social media, and fake news. Of 15 students, nearly all who took the survey were Communication majors, save for one Accounting major. 33.3% of respondents were freshmen at the university. Students primarily preferred mainstream news or other live television as their preferred forms of traditional media. In terms of where students got their news, it was pretty split among traditional broadcast and print media and social media platforms, with X (formerly known as Twitter), TikTok, and Instagram being among the most common sources. 86.7% of respondents found media, in general, to be “somewhat reliable.”

The front page of The Onion. A live event hosted by the Onion in New York on October 17 was advertised in a banner on their main page.

One respondent, who uses TikTok, CNN, and The New York Times as their forms of media for news, said, “I feel like I never get the time to sit down and read a newspaper or sit down and watch the morning/night news. I tend to see news on TikTok, then find podcasts talking about an issue (if it interests me), and then go online to read up on an issue (if it’s still bugging me).” This same student said they were “very concerned” about fake news, and found media, in general, to be “somewhat reliable.”

With the rise of digital media, students are less focused on traditional media outlets to get news. The internet has made it more accessible than ever for anyone to publish content, which has made fake news more accessible than ever, too. Many traditional media have subscriptions, which cost money, causing students to look towards free news instead. Digital media tends to be more eye-catching, interactive, and engaging compared to traditional forms of media.

Dr. Joseph Yoo, assistant professor of communication at UW-Green Bay, speaks to the COMM Voice about fake news. “So the biggest difference might be the amount of information being circulated. While traditional media might have some limited capacity for new media, you can even create any information. You can even write it. You can even create your own fake news site. Right. Right. So, the barrier and the amount of information to pump with your information might be a big difference.”

Fake news became an important issue in 2016 during that year’s presidential election. Fabricated stories about Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton were spread on social media, such as on Facebook. According to CNBC, stories that portrayed both candidates in both positive and negative lights were widely shared, but they had no basis in reality. One such story was #pizzagate, where people believed Clinton and her team were engaging in child sex trafficking and child sacrifice. Authorities found no evidence to support these claims. The importance of identifying fake news has persisted since 2016.

A meme about fake news based on a frame from the 1971 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (Taken from Purdue University)

“A majority of live news that is on TV tends to sway very left or very right while simultaneously bashing the other side,” one respondent of the COMM Voice’s survey said. Another said, “I don’t use traditional media as much because I tend to get disheartened by the amount of violence and negativity highlighted by traditional news.” Dr. Justin Kavlie, assistant professor of communication at UWGB, spoke to the COMM Voice about why it’s important for students to have access to reliable forms of media and be educated on how to identify that media. Kavlie says, “…I personally think that universities’ roles are not to tell students what to think specifically, but how to think, you know, critically examine information and, you know, arrive at their conclusions logically through a debate of facts and reasons and in hopefully be able to find the truth wherever it exists. And so I think that that’s really the main role for universities is to in the people that work at them in order are the role is really to help students get trained in on this critical examination into and to not rest with just the simple and just the the the who you call it, like the immediate response to information.”

Kavlie also says social media does play a role in facilitating the exchange of opinion, forming a modern version of the ‘marketplace of ideas,’ which is the philosophical notion that truth will emerge from free and transparent public discourse. Kavlie says it also allows for fact-checking in real time, citing a recent example of people fact-checking and commenting on Republican presidential candidates on social media in real-time during the recent presidential debates. By the same token, social media also allows for the spread of misinformation, from fake news about news and political candidates to negatively affecting the mental health of teenagers, among other issues.

With the rise of social media and the decline of traditional media also comes the rise of news deserts. News deserts are areas with little or no access to local, credible forms of media, such as newspapers or television stations. This forces people to turn to alternative forms of media, such as online publications and social media. Colleges and universities are concerned with addressing news deserts. UWGB hosted “The Role of Higher Education in Addressing the News Desert Crisis” on October 12, a panel discussion on how to stop the spread of news deserts, particularly in Northeast Wisconsin. Dr. Yoo was one of the panelists at the event and spoke about the role of universities in addressing these news deserts, equipping students to find reliable sources of information, becoming involved in the news at the local level, and providing students with hands-on experience in their education.

The audience and panel of “The Role of Higher Education in Addressing the News Desert Crisis” on October 12, 2023, at UWGB. Dr. Joseph Yoo was one of the panelists. (Photo by Josh Buntin)

He elaborates on this further in his interview with the COMM Voice, saying it is important for students to be provided with reliable, in-depth sources of media. It is also important for students to be taught how to verify if media is reliable. He says this is applicable both to the consumption of news as well as the writing of news. In his journalism classes at UWGB, Dr. Yoo has his students write in-depth, investigative stories in order to give them hands-on experience in gathering information and forming a coherent narrative. The ability to find reliable media and evaluate information is essential to building knowledge. Yoo says sources like libraries, newspapers, and academic journals are provided to students through their tuition dollars, allowing students access to high-quality information they can use. Verifying information will help combat the rise of fake news as media continues to grow and evolve.

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