Across the great divide: How today's college students engage with news

Alison J Head, Erica DeFrain, Barbara Fister, Margy MacMillan


This paper reports results from a mixed-methods study about how college students engage with news when questions of credibility and “fake news” abound in the U.S. Findings are based on 5,844 online survey responses, one open-ended survey question (N=1,252), and 37 follow-up telephone interviews with students enrolled at 11 U.S. colleges and universities. More than two-thirds of respondents had received news from at least five pathways to news during the previous week; often their news came from discussions with peers, posts on social media platforms, online newspaper sites, discussions with professors, or news feeds. The classroom was an influential incubator for news habits; discussions of news provided relevant connections to curricular content as well as guidance for navigating a complex and crowded online media landscape. Respondents majoring in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and business administration were far more likely to get news from their professors than were students in computer science or engineering. The interplay between unmediated and mediated pathways to news underscored the value of the socialness of news; discussions with peers, parents, and professors helped students identify which stories they might follow and trust. Opportunities and strategies are identified for preparing students to gather and evaluate credible news sources, first as students and then as lifelong learners, based on the assumption that instructors discussing news in class can demonstrate intentionally, or unintentionally, that familiarity with news is a social practice and a form of civic engagement.


news consumption, news engagement, media literacy, news literacy, information literacy, civic engagement, post-truth,college students

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