Since President Trump took office, he has relentlessly attacked the media. He’s shunned individual reporters, referred to the press as “the enemy of the American people,” and popularized the term “fake news” to denigrate credible articles. Meanwhile, public trust in the press is at an all-time low. According to a recent Knight-Gallup report, only a third of Americans view the press positively.
There is increasing evidence that this skepticism, exacerbated by the president’s relentless attacks, is trickling down to the next generation of voters. A 2017 report on a series of focus groups with 52 people between the ages of 14 and 24, conducted by Data & Society and the Knight Foundation, found that many young Americans believe the news is biased and are skeptical of its accuracy. “There was no assumption that the news would convey the truth or would be worthy of their trust,” the study reported.
Teenagers, in particular, appear to be increasingly questioning the credibility and value of traditional media organizations. In interviews with The Atlantic, teens expressed great skepticism about the accuracy of the mainstream media, reiterated Trump’s biased characterization of many news sources, and said the president’s outrageous tweets have become so much a part of everyday life that they’ve morphed into catchphrases.
The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 5, 2018
“I don’t believe there [are] any neutral news organizations,” said Emma Neely, a 19-year-old in Tennessee. “Each writer and editor has their own personal bias. What they write, even if it’s a little biased, it’s still biased.”
Angie, a 16-year-old in New York, agreed. She contends that Trump’s comments have revealed to people that the news media cannot be trusted. “I think this whole phenomenon has given teens awareness that bias exists and things are not what they seem,” she said.
Sally, a 17-year-old in Puerto Rico, said she’s learned not to trust the media and was disappointed with the biases she found in how some outlets handled coverage of Hurricane Maria’s destruction. “They say what they want to say,” she said. “I don’t feel they say the truth as it is.”
Social media has given young people unprecedented access to real-time news. Many teens I spoke with follow the president, other politicians, journalists, and news outlets on Twitter. The ones who don’t follow Trump directly all said they were aware of almost everything he tweets thanks to screenshots posted to Snapchat or Instagram, where his comments are warped into punch lines and memes.
“I see a huge change from six years ago,” said Kathleen Carver, an AP government teacher at Wylie East High School in Texas. “When I started working, students weren’t really interested or even knowledgeable about basic current issues. Today, though, students are talking about current events ... Kids talk about current events and issues like it’s high-school gossip. It’s become a lot more relevant to them.”
That doesn’t mean they take the president seriously. Even teenagers who said they identified as conservative-leaning said they joke about the outrageousness of Trump’s comments. Carver said that she has been amazed at how quickly Trump’s tweets are adapted into punch lines in her classroom. “When I say a crazy fact or something that shocks the students, I always have a student yell out ‘fake news,’ which causes a lot of laughter,” she said.
“The younger internet, we all understand it’s irresponsible of [Trump to tweet], but at the same time we laugh at it and make it into a meme,” said Colin, a 16-year-old in Pennsylvania. “Like how often does a person tweet ‘Thank you Kanye, very cool’? ... People see something crazy now and say ‘thank you Kanye very cool,’ or they edit random stuff over [Trump’s] tweets.”
“I can’t take him seriously if he’s tweeting more than I do,” said Samara, a 16-year-old in Texas. “A lot of people have him blocked, it’s like whatever.”
Trolling the president on his own social channels by replying to his tweets or commenting on his Instagram is entertaining, said several teens, but the amount of backlash you get from conservative-leaning accounts when doing so gets old. Bennet, a 15-year-old in Massachusetts who asked to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns, said they often go on Instagram or Twitter to “comment something snarky. I get the usual, ‘oh you’re some dumb liberal blah blah. You’re stupid antifa.’”
CJ Pearson, a 16-year-old conservative commentator, said the reason why Trump’s messages permeate so deeply into teen culture is because “President Trump understands the meme culture better than so many people. Every tweet he makes doesn’t just live on Twitter. It goes across every platform and stirs discussion among people who aren’t even political.”
Pearson, an avid Trump supporter, said he has lots of friends with political beliefs different from his own, but even they are hyperaware of everything the president does and says, and enjoy debating it. “Trump has been able to connect with teens in a way no president has before,” he said. “When Obama wanted to connect with young people, he sat down with [the 46-year-old YouTube star] Glozell, someone his own age. If Trump wants to reach young people, he’ll just tweet.”
Even Pearson doesn’t take what the president says on Twitter seriously. “I will literally reply to a tweet, quote tweet it like, ‘LMAO,’ because that’s what I’m doing when I read the tweet. I’m laughing so hard,” he said.
As much as they laugh, though, Trump’s negative views on the media have undoubtedly affected teens’ views of certain outlets. The teens I spoke with often had strong opinions about CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Fox News. Colin said he tries to avoid CNN and most mainstream news sites, instead following independent journalists he likes on YouTube. “In 2016, I became a little more skeptical of the mainstream media, just because I know how corporate donors and commercials work,” he said. “Why wouldn’t CNN endorse Clinton or talk about her in a better way than Trump when Time Warner was donating so much money to her campaign?” (CNN did not officially endorse any candidate in the last election, but Trump supporters have frequently attacked the network for what they have seen as a pro-Clinton bias.)
Laura Medici Fleming, a history teacher at Ridgewood High School in New Jersey for 35 years, said she’s seen a huge shift in the way her students perceive mainstream news organizations. “When I first started teaching, the word of The New York Times was practically gospel, but that has changed in the past few years,” she said. “The current climate has had an impact. Some of the students make disparaging comments about CNN and ‘fake news.’ And some roll their eyes at Fox.”
Carver said she’s had to alter which news sources she uses to teach her students, since if she presents an article from the wrong “side,” students will write the information off. “If I present CNN or Fox, that may automatically cause some limitations,” she said.
Travis Grandt, a history teacher in Colorado, said that he was once admonished by kids in his classroom for pulling up an article from CNN on the classroom’s smart board before class started. Grandt said a student told him it was obvious CNN was picking on Trump, based on the headlines. “I asked him if it seemed ridiculous that there are lots of stories about the most powerful person in the world on an international news site,” Grandt said. “He said no, but all of the stories on CNN were super negative.”
For “non-biased news,” the teens I spoke to said they turn directly to journalists themselves or news-related pages on social media vetted by people they trust. “I follow a few political Instagram accounts,” Colin said. “They’ll post memes and headlines and stuff and people discuss them. Political Instagram is a thing. It’s sort of like a weird mesh between a meme page and a news page.”
Pearson said that he thinks it’s much more valuable to follow individual journalists online than faceless media networks. “I put the same weight on tweets from reporters as a story they actually have a byline on,” he said. “If you have a checkmark there’s a lot of credibility that comes with that.”
Neely said she also mostly gets her news on Twitter and follows several journalists, though she doesn’t trust most of what she sees. “On Twitter, there’s always all kinds of different news stories coming up. You never know if they’re real or not, of course,” she said. “Sometimes if I see a news story on Twitter, I’ll go on Instagram and look up the person they’re talking about to get more information on who the person is.”
One thing teens did feel positively about was their ability to impact the broader media and political landscape. They all felt empowered by social media to make their voices heard, despite the fact that most still can’t vote. “Teenagers and young people in general have taken the world by storm,” said Isabel, a 13-year-old in New York. “We are human beings with real minds. Whether you want to listen to us is your choice but we are going to talk and be heard out in the long run.”