With increasing fake news and polarizing politics, Americans have been exposed to false or misinterpreted scientific information. A disconnect between the scientific community and news outlets has perpetuated public uncertainty about climate change. With the widening of such disconnect, it is crucial to understand how youth, who mainly use digital sources for information, comprehend climate change, as such a demographic will be a vehicle for climate change mitigation. We aim to understand climate change knowledge and attitudes among college students and their trustworthiness of six news outlets as sources of information about climate change. Results from a survey show that students care and are aware of climate change. Moreover, students are hesitant about news sources for climate change information. While students trust more the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, local news sources to the college, they overall neither trust nor distrust CNN, The Washington Post, Fox News, and Breitbart. This hesitation to trust or distrust such contrasting news regarding climate change may be explained by the overabundance of misinformation, the usage of cognitive heuristics, the rise of anti-intellectualism, and the lack of digital literacy, which make processing information more challenging in this postdigital era. We conclude by emphasizing the need to develop different information literacies in higher education. As digital platforms continue to grow, it is important to understand how youth receive and process information about topics like climate change in a complex information ecosystem.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
All materials, data, and protocols were approved by the Institutional Review Board. Due to IRB privacy policies, our data cannot be shared. Survey instrument is included.
Each respondent to the study was given a percentage score based on their total number of correct answers from an 81-question survey that tested the overall publics’ knowledge about climate change (scores 90% and above = A, 80–89% = B, 70–79% = C, 60–69% = D, and scores 59% and below = F) (Leiserowitz, Smith and Marlon 2011).
This survey is available as supplementary material. The survey was approved by the Institutional Review Board and includes questions about other environmental topics not covered in this paper. This article focuses on the climate change questions from the survey. Other questions were used to study additional research questions that are not part of this article.
For simplicity, vegetarians in our study are defined as individuals who did not consume meat, including vegans, pescatarians, and vegetarians.
Annabi, A., González-Ramírez, J., & Müller, F. (2018). What determines financial knowledge among college students? Journal of Financial Education, 44(2), 344–366. https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.11822.25924/1.
Benegal, S. D., & Scruggs, L. A. (2018). Correcting misinformation about climate change: the impact of partisanship in an experimental setting. Climatic Change, 148(1), 61–80. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-018-2192-4.
Bhatt, I., & MacKenzie, A. (2019). Just Google it! Digital literacy and the epistemology of ignorance. Teaching in Higher Education, 24(3), 302–317. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2018.1547276.
Boykoff, M. T. (2008). Lost in translation? United States television news coverage of anthropogenic climate change, 1995–2004. Climatic Change, 86(1), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-007-9299-3.
Brewer, P. R., & Ley, B. L. (2013). Whose science do you believe? Explaining trust in sources of scientific information about the environment. Science Communication, 35(1), 115–137. https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547012441691.
Carmichael, J. T., Brulle, R. J., & Huxster, J. K. (2017). The great divide: understanding the role of media and other drivers of the partisan divide in public concern over climate change in the USA, 2001–2014. Climatic Change, 141(4), 599–612. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-1908-1.
Corbett, J. B., & Durfee, J. L. (2004). Testing public (un)certainty of science: media representations of global warming. Science Communication, 26(2), 129–151. https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547004270234.
Dunlap, R. E., & McCright, A. M. (2008). A widening gap: republican and democratic views on climate change. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 50(5), 26–35. https://doi.org/10.3200/ENVT.50.5.26-35.
Feldman, L., Maibach, E. W., Roser-Renouf, C., & Leiserowitz, A. (2012). Climate on cable: the nature and impact of global warming coverage on fox news, CNN, and MSNBC. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 17(1), 3–31. https://doi.org/10.1177/1940161211425410.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Gauchat, G. (2012). Politicization of science in the public sphere: a study of public trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. American Sociological Review, 77(2), 167–187. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122412438225.
Golan, G. J., & Baker, S. (2012). Perceptions of media trust and credibility among Mormon college students. Journal of Media and Religion, 11(1), 31–43. https://doi.org/10.1080/15348423.2012.655112.
Halstead, T. (2017). A climate solution where all sides can win. TED Ideas worth spreading, April. https://www.ted.com/talks/ted_halstead_a_climate_solution_where_all_sides_can_win. Accessed 20 April 2020.
Heyamoto, L., & Milbourn, T. (2018). 32 percent project—how citizens define trust and how journalists can earn it. Eugene, OR: University of Oregon. https://journalism.uoregon.edu/files/imported/2018-Agora-Report-Update.pdf. Accessed 8 April 2020.
Hmielowski, J. D., Feldman, L., Myers, T. A., Leiserowitz, A., & Maibach, E. (2014). An attack on science? Media use, trust in scientists, and perceptions of global warming. Public Understanding of Science, 23(7), 866–883. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963662513480091.
IPCC. (2007). Summary for Policymakers (climate change 2007: the physical science basis. Contribution of working group I to the fourth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change). Cambridge, UK and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ar4-wg1-spm-1.pdf. Accessed 17 June 2019.
Irvine, M. (2015). Survey young adults do consume news, in their own way. The associated press, 16 march. https://www.ap.org/ap-in-the-news/2015/survey-young-adults-do-consume-news-in-their-own-way. Accessed 7 Feb 2020.
Iyengar, S., & Massey, D. S. (2019). Scientific communication in a post-truth society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(16), 7656–7661. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1805868115.
Jandrić, P. (2019). The postdigital challenge of critical media literacy. The International Journal of Critical Media Literacy, 1(1), 26–37. https://doi.org/10.1163/25900110-00101002.
Jarvis, S. E., Stroud, N. J., & Gilliland, A. A. (2009). College students, news use, and trust. Communication Research Reports, 26(1), 30–39. https://doi.org/10.1080/08824090802636991.
Jiang, J., & Vetter, M. A. (2020). The good, the bot, and the ugly: problematic information and critical media literacy in the postdigital era. Postdigital Science and Education, 2(1), 78–94. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-019-00069-4.
Khan, S. (2020). Negotiating (dis)trust to advance democracy through media and information literacy. Postdigital Science and Education, 2(1), 170–183. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-019-00072-9.
Krosnick, J. A., & MacInnis, B. (2010). Frequent viewers of fox news are less likely to accept scientists’ views of global warming. Stanford; CA: Stanford University. https://people.uwec.edu/jamelsem/papers/CC_Literature_Web_Share/Public_Opinion/CC_Fox_News_Krosnick_2010.pdf. Accessed 25 Feb 2019.
Leiserowitz, A., Smith, N., & Marlon, J. (2011). Americans’ knowledge on climate change. Resource document. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. http://www.ourenergypolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/American-Teens-Knowledge-of-Climate-Change.pdf. Accessed 3 Nov 2018.
MacKenzie, A., & Bhatt, I. (2020). Lies, bullshit and fake news. Postdigital Science and Education, 2(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-019-00085-4.
Malka, A., Krosnick, J. A., Debell, M., Pasek, J., & Schneider, D. (2009). The association of knowledge with concern about global warming: trusted information sources shape public thinking. Risk Analysis, 29(5), 633–647. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2009.01220.x.
Metzger, M. J., & Flanagin, A. J. (2013). Credibility and trust of information in online environments: the use of cognitive heuristics. Journal of Pragmatics, 59, 210–220. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2013.07.012.
Metzger, M. J., & Flanagin, A. J. (2015). Psychological approaches to credibility assessment online. The Handbook of the Psychology of Communication Technology, 32, 445–220. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2013.07.012.
Metzger, M. J., Flanagin, A. J., & Medders, R. B. (2010). Social and heuristic approaches to credibility evaluation online. Journal of Communication, 60(3), 413–439. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2010.01488.x.
Metzger, M. J., Hartsell, E. H., & Flanagin, A. J. (2020). Cognitive dissonance or credibility? A comparison of two theoretical explanations for selective exposure to partisan news. Communication Research, 47(1), 3–28. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650215613136.
Meyer, A. (2016). Heterogeneity in the preferences and pro-environmental behavior of college students: the effects of years on campus, demographics, and external factors. Journal of Cleaner Production, 112, 3451–3463. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2015.10.133.
Meyer, A., & Yang, G. (2016). How much versus who: which social norms information is more effective? Applied Economics, 48(5), 389–401. https://doi.org/10.1080/00036846.2015.1080803.
Motta, M. (2018). The dynamics and political implications of anti-intellectualism in the United States. American Politics Research, 46(3), 465–498. https://doi.org/10.1177/1532673X17719507.
Nisbet, M., & Myers, T. (2007). The polls—trends: twenty years of public opinion about global warming. Public Opinion Quarterly, 71(3), 444–470. https://doi.org/10.1093/poq/nfm031.
Nisbet, M. C. (2009). Communicating climate change: why frames matter for public engagement. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 51(2), 12–23. https://doi.org/10.3200/ENVT.51.2.12-23.
Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: how search engines reinforce racism. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Palm, R., Lewis, G. B., & Feng, B. (2017). What causes people to change their opinion about climate change? Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 107(4), 883–896. https://doi.org/10.1080/24694452.2016.1270193.
Peters, M. A. (2019). Anti-intellectualism is a virus. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 51(4), 357–363. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2018.1462946.
Schuldt, J. P., & Pearson, A. R. (2016). The role of race and ethnicity in climate change polarization: evidence from a U.S. national survey experiment. Climatic Change, 136(3), 495–505. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-016-1631-3.
Shah, A. K., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2008). Heuristics made easy: an effort-reduction framework. Psychological Bulletin, 134(2), 207–222. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.134.2.207.
Shao, C., Ciampaglia, G. L., Varol, O., Yang, K.-C., Flammini, A., & Menczer, F. (2018). The spread of low-credibility content by social bots. Nature Communications, 9(1), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-06930-7.
Sinclair, C. (2020). Parody: fake news, regeneration and education. Postdigital Science and Education, 2(1), 61–77. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-019-00054-x.
Tandoc Jr., E. C., Lim, Z. W., & Ling, R. (2018). Defining “Fake News.”. Digital Journalism, 6(2), 137–153. https://doi.org/10.1080/21670811.2017.1360143.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: heuristics and biases. Science, 185(4157), 1124–1131. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.185.4157.1124.
Zhou, J. (2016). Boomerangs versus javelins: how polarization constrains communication on climate change. Environmental Politics, 25(5), 788–811. https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2016.1166602.
We acknowledge that Sierra Arral and Veronica Cheng were part of the survey design and data collection, but they studied different research questions with different parts of the survey. We are grateful for the assistance provided by Cindy Duggan, Jake Holmquist, and the members of the Information Technology Services from Manhattan College, who helped with the distribution of the survey through Qualtrics. We also acknowledge and thank for the comments and feedback received at the Jasper Summer Research Scholars Symposium, at the Eastern Economic Association (EEA) conference, at the Association for Environmental and Resource Economists (AERE) sessions at the Midwest Economic Association (MEA) conference, and at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability Conference (AASHE) conference.
This research was supported by the Dean’s Office at the O’Malley School of Business and the Jasper Summer Research Scholars Program at Manhattan College. In addition, this research benefitted from support from the National Science Foundation and the AEA Mentoring Program (NSF Awards #1357478 & 1730651).
Conflict of Interest/Competing Interests
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
About this article
Cite this article
Cheng, H., Gonzalez-Ramirez, J. Trust and the Media: Perceptions of Climate Change News Sources Among US College Students. Postdigit Sci Educ (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-020-00163-y
- Climate change
- College students
- Digital literacy
- Cognitive heuristics