In this age of post-truth politics, when facts compete with fake news and Americans share online information with ease and comfort, the healthy skepticism of a eighth-graders could help save democracy.
At an Akron middle school dedicated to technologies that are reshaping the world, students are taught to question everything. As early as third grade, they go online to debunk misleading articles.
Four years too young to vote, students at Akron’s National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM Middle School next semester will explore fake news, which took root long before the presidential election but sprouted like dandelions this past year.
“They made people think that vaccinations cause autism,” said Rylee Gump, 13, noting that misinformation threatens more than democracy.
“The people who are clicking on that, they are outweighing the critical thinkers. And not everyone has a want to be informed,” said Jaime Meeker, who will turn 18 three days before the 2020 presidential election.
Their beliefs about indiscreet adults on the internet are backed by research. A BuzzFeed News analysis showed that in the final weeks of the campaign, Americans were far more likely to share on Facebook stories that were fake than they were to share real news from media web sites.
“It’s misinformed people informing other people,” said Kendell Faircloth, 13. “I think our generation has to make a change… We as individuals and as a society need to convince people of facts and not false evidence.”
So these young citizens, in their budding wisdom, recognize that market forces can drive media to peddle sensationalism.
The 2016 presidential election — described by a soup of veracious, slanted, even bogus stories — is a case study for what Ohioans consider reliable information.
In June, August, October and after the election, the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron measured the political concerns of 2,100 Ohioans; 1,972 were asked where they get their information.
The data are both clear-cut and mysterious.
Driven by demographics, Ohioans are turning to the Internet to make sense of the day’s — and hour’s — news.
Virtually non-existent as a source 20 years ago, 19 percent of Ohioans now go online for news. Three out of four of those weren’t specific as to where on the internet they found news. It could be any number of reputable or disreputable web sites. A sixth of them identified social media specifically.
About 41 percent, or 808 respondent, rely on TV news.
After that, it was 9 percent newspapers, books or magazines, 7 percent radio, and 5 percent who reviewed the debates or campaign literature.
By news source, voting patterns emerge.
For example, newspaper readers were four times more likely to vote for Clinton, while people who get news from the internet, radio or television said they voted in nearly equal numbers for Trump or Clinton.
Newspaper readers and radio listeners — a primary source of radio news is National Public Radio — had the highest incomes and highest levels of education.
Those with a high school diploma or less were most likely to rely on television or social media.
Half of newspaper readers approved of local coverage of their top issue this election year — the best rating. Slightly less, 47 percent of television viewers, were satisfied, 38 percent of internet perusers and 28 percent of radio listeners.
Also unique to print readers, who were among the oldest to respond, is a rosier outlook for the country. Less than half said the country is off-track. By contrast, at least 60 percent of TV, radio and internet news-seekers said the same.
Education vs. facts
The poll shows Ohioans aren’t happy with how the media (a vague term that includes journalists and entertainers) covered the election.
Asked after the election to grade the media’s job, only a quarter were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied.” Dissatisfaction increased with education: 68 percent with a high school diploma or less were upset compared to 73 percent with some college and 78 percent of degree holders.
Given the opportunity to tell media how to do its job, 70 percent said it is “very important” to check the facts while a little more than half said focus on campaign promises.
The least educated group put the highest emphasis on promises and the lowest on fact-checking.
This reflects the two 2016 campaign styles. The traditional Clinton campaign overwhelmed the voters with details — a strategy designed to expose the opponent. But the opponent trail-blazed a style gaining traction around the world among insurgent politicians: skip the details and make direct, emotive and populist appeals.
Bliss Institute director John Green said the most educated voters question sources and the least educated take information for granted, generally speaking.
“Better educated people are more … capable of processing information and rely less on trusting information sources,” Green said. “Less educated people have more difficulty with information and have to trust the sources of information.”
The backlash from Trump supporters has been bruising. Numerous emails and calls to Ohio reporters and editors suggest that fact-checking of Trump’s numerous errors confirmed that media are anti-Trump.
As conservative columnist Salena Zito summarized: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
In the survey, Clinton fans were more likely to approve of media coverage, especially by national outlets. Coincidently, it was those outlets that fact-checked Trump.
For Clinton fans, approval of local media peaked at 62 percent in August and fell only three percentage points entering the final month of the race.
But for Trump fans, media approval never rose to that level. From June to August to October, approval of local media went from 38 to 48 and back down to 39 percent — the high occurring after Republican National Convention coverage.
At Sunny 95, an FM radio station in Columbus dedicated primarily to broadcasting music, news director Clark Donley never said it, but he especially disliked Trump.
Driven by 23 years of radio journalism and balance, Donley often played the devil’s advocate on behalf of Trump even if he felt criticism was justified.
“I tried not to pile on and kick a guy when he’s down. Sometimes that was seen as me being in favor of [Trump],” Donley said. “It was just a conscious effort to not treat anybody badly — not that I was particularly a big fan of his opponent.”
Donley faults the guarded and disconnected Clinton for her own loss. She did little to thaw her elitist image and allowed “Joe Sixpack” to turn on Democrats.
Trump’s attention-grabbing statements rode a wave with the angry people, while his critics were passive on social media and didn’t make calls to TV shows.
“I was just watching somebody exploit a weakness,” Donley said. A billionaire deal maker turned media mogul, Trump had in his corner some of the savviest conservatives in the online and broadcast news business. “We in television and radio, we are sound-bite driven media; and he was a sound-bite machine.”
But it was the people’s insatiable thirst for conflict — and the media’s for ratings and revenue — that underscored the effectiveness of Trump’s approach. “In a medium driven by audio, it’s hard to turn your back on him,” Donley said. “And it’s hard to find a balancing sound bite.”
“I think we couldn’t help ourselves. And I credit that to a herd mentality,” added Donley, rehashing decisions made over the grueling 18-month election season.
Get your truth here
That Ohioans, on the whole, say fact-checking still matters places a heavy burden on local news organizations devastated by a loss of advertising revenues. Newsrooms have been cut by more than half in the last 10 years.
Increasingly, local outlets turn to national wire services for political news.
Wire services can’t localize, so they set the national narrative from a 30,000-foot view, losing sight of the voters in Ohio’s sprawling countryside — that area that elected Trump.
“This is a region represented by U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, who was head of the Freedom Caucus and one of the most conservative members of the House,” said David Trinko, managing editor at the Lima News, which covers a swath of Ohio between Toledo, Dayton and Columbus.
Trinko’s readers live in Trump country. He knew that before the votes were tabulated.
“The newspaper routinely received calls, emails and social media posts chastising us for not giving more coverage to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. They wanted stories that generally didn’t exist on the wire,” he said.
The Akron Beacon Journal, which dedicated one reporter to cover politics and tapped others to cover can’t-miss rallies, could not dedicate time to confirm or debunk some of those stories — among them claims that the Clintons had killed 33, no 45, no 90 people. It’s on the internet.
National reporters at the Washington Post debunked many. The Associated Press stayed tight to the campaign trail, later reporting on the upswing in fake news or the Clinton Foundation dealings.
And Trump fans blamed local publications for running the lead item offered by national outlets on their front pages.
“How about you guys stop the Trump bashing,” Darrel Brunk, a Lima News reader, wrote on Facebook. “There are way more good things to write about Trump than negative ones. Oh, I forgot. The media runs this country.”
Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ABJDoug.