No need to panic: the truth about the stories claiming students can’t tell the difference between adverts and news

Google being used on a tablet - CC0 Public Domain

There has been a burst of headlines about how students can’t tell the difference between an advert and editorial content when looking at information online, such as 80% of students can’t tell the difference between an ad and a news story. It’s a story that taps into fears over how popular poorly sourced and even deliberately false information is. It also looks to be a well sourced story, based on research from a prestigious US institution.

But scratch under the surface and the story is rather different.

First up, that use of ‘students’. Stanford University’s research was carried out in the US, and ‘student’ here actually means 11-13 year olds. Otherwise known as children.

What’s more, the adverts which caused confusion were stories on a news site that were marked ‘sponsored content’. You or I might know that ‘sponsored content’ on a website story means ‘this is an advert’, but take a step back for a moment. Pretty much everywhere else in life where ‘sponsored’ is used, it doesn’t mean that. The Olympics is an actual sporting event, with sponsors. You wouldn’t call the 100 metres final an advert. The weekend evening TV drama slots are actual TV shows, with sponsors. You wouldn’t call an episode of Morse an advert. And so on.

So if children find it hard to understand what ‘sponsored story’ means on a website, perhaps the story really should be about whether the advertising industry has its terminology right rather than a depressing wail about how humanity can’t spot the truth.

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