Here’s a study on news consumption in social media spaces that is worth highlighting, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. in March 2017 (too late for inclusion in our book, unfortunately). This was a study that analyzed the news consumption patterns of 376 million Facebook users over 6 years and found that social media practices are indeed changing the ways that we get informed. The study looked at how people interacted with 920 news outlets from around the world, and found that most people confine their attention to only a few pages within what the researchers determined was one of five news communities, thus affirming “strong user polarization.” All of the data for this study and its analysis were gathered and performed using the Facebook graph application programming interface, which is publicly available.  Because the data were preexisting, the authors did not seek ethical approval for the gathering or analyzing of the data and abided by Facebook’s privacy guidelines. The project was funded by the EU Future and Emerging Technologies Multiplex Project by scholars at the University of Venice’s Department of Environmental Science, Computer Science, and Statistics.

Basically, this is providing empirical data to support the selection bias that Facebook and other social media platforms reinforce. People tend to find information that confirms their view of the world.

The question, then, is this: what happens when Facebook, which has clearly come to play an important role in news distribution, is not required to abide by the rules that govern other news distribution systems? What are we to do when we as a public learn that Facebook can accept $100,000 for advertisements that convey false information and that have been purchased by fake accounts associated with a Russian troll operation? The problem with this lack of transparency regarding the purchase of the means to distribute false information, as Sunlight Foundation deputy director Alex Howard says, is that “It removes our ability to have transparency into who is trying to influence our politics, and any accountability for that influence.” He continues: “And it takes away from the capacity of the traditional organs of democracy — that being the press and regulators and other institutions — to figure out who is behind political messaging, particularly at crucial times,” as quoted in an article by Craig Silverman in Buzzfeed. Howard argues that Facebook should have to disclose the same level of information about political ad buys that television and radio stations are required to do.

To me, this seems like it should be an easy argument. Who would be against greater transparency in how ads are bought and sold, as such information might bring attention to those who seek to manipulate public opinion in order to win elections? And yet, when I looked at Buzzfeed’s Outside Your Bubble feature for the Silverman story, critics raised points that seemed to question regulation. On the one hand, some expressed deep distrust in the ability of the U.S. government to regulate effectively (this is a skepticism I don’t share, probably because I know my fair share of government bureaucrats in EPA and in health care who actively work to pursue the interests of the public and to put a check on the interests of the powerful few). On the other hand, there was what I’d call the neoliberal response: leave it up to schools to educate young people about fake news (I do think this is important, but not enough on its own). And perhaps most cynically, some said such regulations wouldn’t go far enough, because donors can still hide how they’re spending their money and there would remain a lot we wouldn’t know and couldn’t address (the most ominous, but insightful, of the critiques, I think).

I think Siva Vaidhyanathan said it best in his op-ed in the New York Times: “we are in a worldwide, internet-based assault on democracy.”  Facebook is undermining democracy in the way that it has been allowed to sell ads in a way that does not differentiate between the hawking of pharmaceuticals and the hawking of politically influential and appealing falsehoods.  They have not had to abide by political advertisement disclosure rules because they, and their legions of lobbyists, have claimed that they are a “platform” rather than a media company. But we have to start approaching Facebook as an international media company that is a public utility. It’s a new kind of entity that requires transnational oversight. We need new models for this kind of governance, to be sure. But if this last election is a sign of things to come without regulation, and many think it is, then we’d better get to work on this.

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Participants in the Summer Youth Media Mentoring Project, in a poorly lit phone photo.

Sometimes when you’re an educator, you learn more than you teach. I had a summer like that.

Thanks to the University of Denver’s Center for Civic Engagement and Service Learning, my colleagues in the Graduate School of Social Work, along with me and some students from the Media, Film & Journalism Studies department and the Open Media Foundation, worked with junior high students on what was the first step in a year-long leadership development program. Ten students were selected because they have strong leadership potential. They’re part of the University’s Bridge Project, which offers academic tutoring and mentoring for young people in grades K-12. The Bridge Project is a partnership between the University of Denver and the Denver Housing Authority, as there are four Bridge sites located in four neighborhoods of publicly subsidized housing serving around 600+ young people each year.

There are a lot of youth media and arts programs around the country; one study suggests that there are probably about 700 of them. Most are in urban areas, and while they vary in size, more than half operate on less than $100K a year, according to the only authoritative study I could find on the topic. In designing our summer project, borrowed a lot from existing efforts, like confronting different experiences of privilege and holding the space for young people to learn and develop media expertise, growing into leaders while we follow their lead. But there are a few things that may be unique about this particular project.

  1. It’s not a “one-off.”
    1. Those 10 students will work as peer leaders for the rest of the year with about 80 of their fellow junior highers. It’s part of a longer-term youth voice project, otherwise known as a Youth Participatory Action Research Project, that has involved junior highers for the past year in identifying what they’d like to change in their communities. This effort will involve them over the next year in creating plans for them to lead their peers as they work with policymakers to make their voices heard and to participate in the change they want to see in their communities.
    2. We’ll do another media project in a few months, moving the students from personal stories to stories focused on the changes they wish to see in their communities. In other words, they’ll be working on what’s been called Solutions Journalism.
  2. It’s intergenerational. The storytellers were all in junior high, and the mentors ranged in age from high school to middle age plus. Senior educator/mentors mentored and learned from more junior educator/mentors, while they in turn mentored and learned from high school, college, and junior high school students.
  3. It’s interdisciplinary. As a collaboration between a media program and a social work program, we learned from each other about the benefits of developing trusting relationships with youth and their caregivers as we all developed a more sophisticated sense of media representations, the ways that they are interpreted in relation to various publics, and the role of distribution systems like Facebook in getting such stories shared (or not).

I’m working on writing up the report for the summer, and would love to hear from others who have worked in similar settings as we figure out how to communicate what we’ve learned so far, and how we should think about this work moving forward!

After every session, we had dinner together, which was often as much fun as being in the editing lab!

 

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Photo from Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat

Students in Jefferson County, Colorado are learning first-hand about dissent and political action.  They’re also learning, inadvertently, about how the political process of voting matters, and why the news media, too, matter.

Because voters in Jefferson County tend to be older and more conservative, a conservative school board was elected last November.  But students and their parents tend to be younger, more diverse, and more progressive – and unfortunately, less likely to vote.  This means that those most affected by the School Board are now being faced with decisions that they don’t support, and in turn, the School Board isn’t listening to the publics they serve.  Result = protests, which garner media attention, and put young people in the news.

Here’s today’s story in Chalkbeat, a news outlet dedicated to covering education issues in Colorado.

 Time mag’s review of Aaron’s suicide. 

Lessig discusses the suicide on Huffington Post

Slate’s story on the #pdftribute hashtag

Prosecutor as bully

Alex Stamos’ The Truth about Aaron’s ‘crime’

Aaron Swartz was a technology activist who believed that information should be freely available to everyone. He helped to create RSS, contributed to the creation of Creative Commons, and also helped develop Reddit.  He began the movement that led to the stopping of the Congressional bill that would have censored the Internet (SOPA).

If journalists believe that all people need access to information and expression, then it’s easy to see someone like Aaron as an important ally.  The pro-journalism organization Free Press saw him that way.

Hi. Thanks for visiting! I’m Lynn, and I’m an Associate Professor in Media, Film, and Journalism Studies. I hope this blog will generate some good conversation. Or, if you’re reading this from most to least recent, I hope you found some things of interest here and that you’ll come back to comment, question, and point me in the right direction.

This is a new blog, but it’s part of a project I’ve been working on and interested in for a long time. The question I’m interested in is this: How do young people come to be interested in news?

Now usually when I raise this question, people (especially journalists) are quick to point out that young people really aren’t all that interested in news.

But I’ve come to realize that they answer this way because of how we as a society tend think about what “news” is.

If we think of news as the thing that comes to us in the newspaper or (as it does for me) as a list of linked headlines on my google home page, then yes, most young people really aren’t that interested.

But what if we think about “news” from the perspective of young people themselves? Then, the answers might be surprising.

I know I was surprised a few years ago when I started asking high schoolers about where they got their news. “Facebook,” several replied. No, they didn’t mean that they read New York Times content on Facebook, or read the stories from news organizations that were forwarded to them. They read the status updates their friends wrote. That was the news that they needed to know. A few talked about reading the high school newspaper, or checking sports scores online. Some confessed to watching celebrity news on tv, especially when they were between activities.

But is all of that “news”?

And if it is, how does it relate to the news that we in the 40+ age group read?

Are today’s young people truly becoming less interested in that current events kind of news than were the young people of the past, as David Mindich has argued?

Or are only some young people today interested in that kind of news – and perhaps it’s always been thus? Maybe it’s the fault of the news industries as David Buckingham has argued. They don’t see teens and college students as lucrative and regular consumers, and thus “news” is not created for them in a way that speaks to their interests.

There are important related questions, of course. Will the bulk of today’s young people become consumers of the products of the professional news industry when they get older? Or do today’s new media represent a fundamental shift in a new direction?

Moreover, thanks to the Internet and the inexpensive tools of cultural production, now anyone can write and disseminate “news,” or can be called upon to serve a journalistic role in telling an important and timely story.

And, as a media historian, I wonder: what are the precedents from the past? Who among the young of 100 or more years ago were the newsmakers, the news disseminators, the opinion leaders? How did they relate to the fast-changing media landscape of the mid to late 19th century?

I’m hoping that this blog will help me to sort out the questions as well as an approach to addressing them. Feel free to write with suggestions and point me in the direction of your work or the work of others. Thanks!