Almost 60% of people who share this story on social media will do so without ever reading past the headline. That’s according to a Columbia University study analyzing the type of content that receives the most engagement on Twitter. They did their research from a business marketing standpoint, but for journalists, the study reveals a lot about where the industry is lacking and how we can move forward.
First, we need to understand why folks are stopping short. Why do they assume that headlines contain the complete, or any, truth? For many millennials, it’s kind of a second Golden Rule: “don’t trust everything you read on the internet.” But some experts say that many American consumers lack news literacy and online literacy, especially older and rural populations or those without a 21st-century education. However, due to the popularity of social media platforms, even those without an understanding of how to critically analyze online information now have easy access to a constant barrage of news, ranging from official Associated Press reports to kids’ Tumblr blogs. On social media, these sources are given equal weight at a significant cost: in general, 63% of Americans surveyed by the News Literacy Project said they now have a hard time telling real news from fake.
The creation of social media marks a pivotal point in the story of how America stopped reading past the headlines. It’s partly due to the speed at which mass amounts of information can come at us in an era when we’re busier than ever before. According to the News Literacy Project, 58% of Americans said the increased amount of information to sift through—thanks to social media— actually makes it more difficult to stay informed. While 68% said they used social media as a way to get news, 57% said they didn’t even trust what they read on those sites.
Then why do they still share, share, share, without reading any of the context? Social media has become a major setting for receiving and sharing information, but because it’s so much faster, more visual, more casual, and shareable, it’s not considered enough of a media entity to be included in 21st-century news literacy curricula yet.
We see a similar issue with television news and videos online, which are both increasing in prominence and popularity. Visuals are extremely easy to edit to misrepresent information, and many Americans admit that they aren’t always able to decipher real from fake: nearly half of the nation (47%) preferred to watch the news rather than read or listen to it in 2018, according to Pew Research Center, but the News Literacy Project found that 43% of those who relied on television news admitted to “falling for” doctored footage.
Another reason we don’t all read past the headline is because a lot of people online don’t have the internet skills to understand that not everything they read on the web is true. Older, rural, and low-income folks for whom internet access may be new and limited are least likely to have the knowhow to critically analyze a digital piece and most likely to circulate misinformation or share articles they haven’t verified. A study of Facebook sharing trends determining the impact of fake political news in 2016 found that, while fake news isn’t as widespread as was once believed, 8.5% of total respondents shared at least one pro-Trump fake news article on their timeline. People from the baby boomer generation (born 1946-1964) were 7 times more likely to share fake reports about Trump than anyone else. While this study was extremely limited in scope since it focused only on the portion of the population who supported Trump publicly online, it is likely that the trend holds across partisan lines. For example, older adults are now direct targets of online phishing scams by experienced con artists that cost them more money, time, and emotional well-being than folks of any other age group.
Although the spread of misinformation online isn’t usually that malicious, it does have an important impact on news audiences. Headlines and text posts alone can change the way we think about the world without our even knowing it. One major reason why many people still feel empowered to share articles they haven’t read, aside from just not knowing that they need to, is because the headline might proclaim something they already believe. Confirmation bias gives them the confidence to share the article, and their friends are likely to have many ideas in common and share the same link in turn. This creates a cycle of reinforcing the same untrue belief among like-minded folks and makes them less likely to change their minds once real information counters their opinion, known as the echo chamber effect.
As a result of the high amount of shares these fake articles get, unreliable news sites start churning out more sensational headlines and misleading stories to keep up the circulation. Unethical journalists and fake news disseminators with an agenda can tilt, dramatize, or falsify headlines and information to audiences who won’t question them, making it easy for publishers to manipulate online users into believing or acting on potentially dangerous falsehoods. Popular examples include the anti-vaccine and Flat Earth movements, which expanded largely thanks to echo chambers within conspiracy-theory Facebook groups.
From a news standpoint, the spread of misinformation contributes to both an uninformed nation and the lack of public trust in journalists we’ve been dealing with since the dawn of the online age. It’s easy for reporters to blame consumers for their lack of news literacy, but it looks like it’s time for a new approach. Since journalists are the ones with media education, shouldn’t we be doing our part to help our audiences understand what we do?
Emily Rose Thorne is a junior at Mercer University and an aspiring multimedia journalist. She’s been involved with Step Up Magazine since 2017 and is now helping guide the editorial team as Senior Editor. Previously, she interned as a journalist for both Atlanta Magazine and Girls Rock Athens. She’s also served as Staff Writer, Lead News Writer and News Editor of her campus publication, The Cluster. She is currently the Digital Editor of The Cluster and a 2019 John M. Couric Fellow at the Center for Collaborative Journalism. This summer, she'll start producing audio and writing copy for Georgia Public Broadcasting in Macon.