National trust in traditional news and media has hit an all-time low, according to Edelman’s 2021 trust barometer report. For millions of Americans, trust in our governing institutions, including businesses, government and media has decreased significantly in the past decade, despite an increase in prioritizing information literacy. An astounding 56% of Americans agreed that “journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things that they know are false or gross exaggerations,” with trust in the media declining further after the 2020 presidential election. However, Americans have indicated increased prioritization in media and information literacy as well as science literacy this past year. A poll conducted among NJIT students suggests that the gap between news consumption and trust in traditional media is even greater than the national average.
Using the survey questions from Edelman, a similar poll was conducted among and sent out to students at NJIT. Regarding the importance of news consumption in 2020, of 206 responses, 75.7% of respondents said that increasing their media and information literacy was more important to them, dwarfing the 55% average. Giancarlo Calle, senior computer science student and administrator of the NJIT politics Discord server, explained that his priorities in consuming news definitely increased over the past year: “I’m always trying to learn about what big event is going on, such as what’s going to affect my family, school and friends. As a senior who’s about to graduate, get a job and eventually move into my own house and become financially independent, I care more about that stuff that would affect my finances or my day-to-day life. I’ve been learning about how our government functions, more about the stock market, laws and how all of these institutions affect each other.”
Additionally, 75.7% of NJIT respondents said becoming more politically aware became more important to them, and 63.1% said that speaking out when they saw a need for change and reforms had become a stronger prioritization, compared to Edelman’s averages of 51% and 47%, respectively. Interestingly, students have marked NJIT’s campus as more apolitical than most. Colton Prentzel, senior biomedical engineering major, explained that he founded the NJIT politics Discord server because he found that there wasn’t an organization or space for NJIT students to discuss politics. “It was kind of hard to find people that were open to have these conversations about politics,” said Prentzel.
“It’s a great place to throw up current events or ideas and to learn from each other. It’s a good place to test our worldviews,” said Calle.
Despite increased interest in politics, NJIT students approach traditional news outlets with plenty of skepticism. 84% believe that the media is not doing well at being objective and non-partisan. 90.8% of students “believe that government leaders are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things that they know are false or gross exaggerations,” compared to the 42% national average. Prentzel explained his inherent agreement with this statement, “when I go to my job, and I do poorly, I get fired. But a politician’s job is essentially to lie to us: when they go to their jobs and do poorly, they can fall back on lying to us and say that everything’s going fine in hopes to get reelected. Yes, politicians lie to us. And there’s not really a way to control that until we’re able to get a grasp of what really is the truth. Unfortunately, the media is not really helping with that.”
75.7% of NJIT respondents agreed that “journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things that they know are false or gross exaggerations,” compared to a 56% national average. “A lot of news sources, especially those that have opinion pieces, well, they are going to give you the facts, but then they’ll give you their interpretation,” Calle continued. “They usually will never outright lie to you, but they will frame something in a way that implies something negative. For example, they’ll ask, how are they going to pay for this idea? They’re not saying the idea is impossible, but they promote a certain implication. Many news outlets definitely have an agenda.”
Regarding the same question, Prentzel said, “by and large? No. I believe most journalists are honest people. However, I think that their organizations around them kind of lead them astray because they need high ratings.”
Both cited several events in 2020 that were misrepresented in news, especially surrounding information around the COVID-19 pandemic. Prentzel recalled one time he was watching the news, where “CNN was roasting Trump for how he handled the coronavirus, how he didn’t give enough money to the task force, etc. I switched over to Fox News, and they’re saying that Democrats are more concerned with racism than they are with the pandemic. I just thought, wow, two groups can take one situation and really spin anything two different ways.”
“There was a lot of misinformation,” explained Calle, such as around mask-wearing early on during the pandemic or misrepresenting COVID-19 data in different states in attempts to criticize the opposition.
In some ways, 2020 was the perfect storm for highlighting weaknesses in our traditional news and media outlets. This past year we were faced to confront a longstanding pandemic, saw wide coverage in Black shootings and other racial injustices and saw marked distrust among the most democratic institutions when voting during the presidential election, after President Trump encouraged supporters to monitor polls for voter fraud and launched months-long investigations.
“People are opening their eyes to this kind of stuff,” said Calle. “People are recognizing certain agendas, and finding out that their favorite politicians aren’t as great as they used to be while learning more about the political system. Many people are quote-on-quote ‘opening their eyes’ to the fact that big media corporations are being funded.”
“It’s all led by people like Trump,” continued Calle. “He’s like, this is fake news, that is fake news. And to an extent, he’s right. There’s bias everywhere. You really have to watch out when you say one outlet is fake news, while another isn’t.”
Both agree that trust can be restored, on the side of consumers. “People should also not outright reject something that the news says just because it comes from one outlet. Sure, there’s bias, but what’s important is that you can still retain the facts they bring up and can separate out the biased opinions.”
“We all can be a little less naive in consuming media in general,” Prentzel noted.