Gaining the Trust of both Gen Z and Cyber Seniors

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Jan 30, 2020
by Nicola Mann
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Gaining the Trust of both Gen Z and Cyber Seniors

Nicola Mann, associate professor of communications and visual cultures, examines how news outlets can counter the distrust of both their young and old consumers Dr Nicola Mann speaking at the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA)

The recent program of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA), The Changing Role of the Media in American Life and Culture (September 2019), considered pertinent issues including the significance of truth and verification to current news production and consumption, as well as the role of the media in culture and democracy in the years to come. 

The issue of distrust in the media emerged as a pressing concern for participants, particularly as it pertains to Generation Z (defined as those born between 1997-2012). According to the international team of journalists, editors and political scientists present, we need to identify the unique ways in which this demographic seeks “demystified” news, building on this to prioritize civic intentionality via media literacy programs. 

Framed by high profile stories related to inaccuracy, bias, fake news, and alternative facts, a recent Pew Research Centre survey found that adults aged 18 to 29 possess comparatively low levels of trust in traditional media institutions. A 2018 Knight Foundation report, meanwhile, found that twice as many young adults (18 to 34) as older respondents said politically focused coverage or partisan bias was a factor in their lack of trust. 

Against this backdrop of distrust, participatory modes of news production position journalists and young readers as interchangeable forces on the front lines of truth-telling. As noted at SSASA, gone are the days of the “backseat baby,” a reference to children who grew up listening to singular news media outlets such as NPR in the backs of their parents’ cars. If news outlets wish to attract more young diversified audiences seeking raw, demystified information, they understand that they must engage in creative ways, oftentimes involving multi-dimensional storytelling that balances complexity with engagement. As one academic at SSASA asserted, “subjectivity matters more to them [youth audiences].” Examples include journalism outreach in the form of podcasts, news aggregators such as Reddit, and online forums such as The Washington Post’s “Live Chats” section. Stripped of the curatorial framing of a glossy CNN news story, on demand non-linear platforms highlight the internal subjectivities of young people – not simply those of the newsroom editor – thereby helping to chip away at the specter of lost trust.  

The urgent need to improve civic education in the form of the development of critical literacy skills in the young also emerged as a pressing concern at SSASA. As noted during one panel discussion, the timeliest research in the area of digital literacy operates via classroom-based discourse. The Washington D.C.-based News Literacy Project, for example, is a national education non-profit that works with educators and journalists to equip students in middle school and high school with the tools to discern fact from fiction in the digital age. The Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, meanwhile, takes a similar approach to the building of digital literacy and news demystification. The ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and participate with media in all its forms serve as a strategy of resistance in a post-truth world. The prioritization of civic intentionality and the cultivation of critical thinking skills are at the core of these projects, making young people realize their role as active (not passive) users of news media.  

While the work of the News Literacy Project and The Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change advances media literacy in the young, older media users require similar educational support. Cyber Seniors, a program in Toronto, is a useful trailblazer in this regard, tackling the divide in media literacy needs among youth and seniors through an intergenerational program. As participants noted in the Q&A session at the symposium’s conclusion, if the promotion of media consciousness forms the core of our mission moving forward, how do “older” media users exercise their civic freedoms? As Americans approach the 2020 election, we must work to cultivate an ethos of media consciousness, giving both young and old active roles in steering new negotiated news media narratives. 


Nicola Mann is an associate professor of visual cultures and communications at Richmond, the American International University in London, UK. She is a Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar, most recently attending the program The Changing Role of the Media in American Life and Culture, of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA) in September 2019. Mann wrote the report for the program, available here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/ssasa17/report