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.


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!


Young people use a variety of strategies for verifying news and put little trust in traditional legacy journalism outlets, according to a new study by Data & Society and the Knight Foundation. The study is titled How Youth Navigate the News Landscape, and is based on analysis of interviews conducted with 6 focus groups with 52 teens and young adults from 3 U.S. cities. The authors write, “In an age of smartphones and social media, young people don’t follow the news as much as it follows them.”  This leads them to think of the news industries as somewhat inevitable parts of their everyday lives that, due to the pervasiveness of the advertising that supports news, will permeate all aspects of their lives.

The study found that many of those interviewed were aware of the need to carefully assess the news that did come their way, and were concerned about bias in the news they read.

As we found in our study of youth and news, all of this meant that young people are defining news in a way that includes but also extends beyond the journalistic outlets that have long been the venue for information about current events.

Mary Madden, Amanda Lenhart and Claire Fountaine authored the study.

UN/Rick Bajornas from the UN News Centre

First, the bad news:

1. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of U.S. young people who watched television news dropped 12%. (Pew Research Ctr for People & the Press 2010)

2. Most people under 40 consider news to be impractical, inconvenient, environmentally unfriendly and boring. (Shorenstein Ctr on the Press, Politics & Public Policy 2007)

3. Some 85% of U.S. young people aged 18-24 said that they posted little or no political information on a social network site in advance of the 2012 elections, and only one third of those surveyed recalled seeing any news at all on a social network site within the previous day (Pew Internet Project 2012)

4. Half of people surveyed say that they consider themselves “news grazers” who check news occasionally but not according to any particular pattern (Pew Ctr for People & the Press 2010)

5. It could be that young people are reluctant to share politically oriented news on social network sites (Thorson 2014)

And then, the good news:


1. More than ever before, schools, community, and even public international organizations like the United Nations are seeing the value in establishing and maintaining youth programs that work to ensure media competence (including the ability to both critique and to create media).

2. Popular culture such as music, satire television, fictional films, documentaries, games, and viral videos continue to provide openings for young people to consider, become interested in, and engage with the political issues that touch their lives (Barnhurst 1998; Bennett 2007; Jenkins 2006; Jones 2010; van Zoonen 2005).

3. Youth are involved in numerous political protests around the world and at least some young people in Hong Kong, Spain, Greece, and the United States are demonstrating as part of a desire for more participation in democratic governance.

4. Community organizations are in some places filling the gaps left as for-profit journalism struggles more than ever before to reach the growing majority-minority communities with information they need for participation in self-governance.

In some ways, today’s information-rich and often opinion-driven media landscape looks a lot more like that of the late 19th century than that of the late 20th.

Penny Magazine


In other ways, today’s media industries are more centralized and concentrated than ever before.

There is little doubt that our ideas of community, information, and value are all undergoing change. What kinds of digital media competence are needed to navigate this environment? How can young people learn to be critics and participants in the forms of storytelling that are emerging?  How can young people whose communities have often felt underserved by profit-driven news media find ways to connect with one another, using social media resources to become members of publics and counter-publics that can effect the positive changes they wish to see in the world?


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.