What’s a poor Millennial to do?

Last week I shared some rather alarming intelligence from the advertising agency, Hill Holiday, warning brands of all stripes about the severe implications of being caught creating or sharing fake news.

The HH research said consumers will drop brands that share fake news faster than Trump dumped former FBI Director James Comey a week or so ago.

Troubling new research from Research Now has only fanned the flames. It shows that Millennials, in particular, struggle when it comes to determining what’s real and what isn’t.

Considering so many Millennials are being asked to disseminate news on both the client and agency sides of our august industry, that’s akin to pouring gasoline on fire (i.e. If Millennial communicators can’t tell what’s true and what isn’t, what’s to prevent them from unknowingly sharing fake news on their company’s/client’s social channels and damaging, if not destroying, long-standing relationships between the brand and its constituents?).

It turns out the 1,100 Millennials surveyed struggle to determine what’s real and what isn’t. That’s because they aren’t being taught the critical thinking skills that were part and parcel of every college curriculum prior to their arrival on campuses a decade or so back.

In fact, 44 percent of the Millennials surveyed by Research Now received an “F” when the company evaluated their critical thinking skills and the ability to identify fake news. And, only 36 percent of Millennials surveyed said they were well-trained in critical thinking. Indeed, a shocking 37 percent readily admitted to having already shared fake news on their social channels.

Holy mega disaster in the making, Batman!

Critical thinking, you see, is paramount in determining if what one reads is true or false. And, according to the World Economic Forum, next to complex problem-solving, critical thinking will be the SECOND most important skill a college graduate will need to possess in 2020.

So, what’s a poor Millennial to do?

In my mind, the answer is elementary, my dear Watson. Do what every trained journalist is required to do before filing a story of any type: verify the news from a trusted second source.

So, if like most Millennials, you rely solely on social media news for information and entertainment, admit to routinely sharing that online content (55 percent) or have already accidentally shared fake news (36 percent), just do the right thing. Double check the “news” with articles in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, a trusted industry trade publication or another source whose integrity for accuracy is impeccable. If it doesn’t pass the sniff test, hit delete.

Having said that, ferreting out fake news is a challenge for communicators of all ages. See how well you fare in this test of recent events:


I won’t tell you my score. If I did, I’d probably be interviewing for a job at Edelman as we speak.

Sadly, this is no laughing matter. In fact, it’s an issue that should concern our industry’s top trade groups ranging from the Institute for Public Relations (www.IPR.org) and The Arthur W. Page Society (www.awps.org) to the PR Council (www.prcouncil.net) and PRSA’s Counselors Academy (www.caprsa.com.)

PR professionals pride ourselves on being the ethical and moral compass of the organization. How can we continue to say that if young practitioners no longer possess built-in BS detectors?

Last, but not least, this should be a clarion call to the PR, journalism, communications and marketing academics who are (or, as the study suggests, aren’t) teaching students to develop critical thinking abilities. That’s where the crux of the problem begins and that’s where it should be immediately addressed.

By the time we hire Millennials, their sloppy news-checking habits have already been formed. And, unless we insist they check and re-check facts before passing them along, you’ll see more and more organizations take a huge hit for spreading fake news (and firing the agencies who enabled it to happen).

And a tip of Rep’s Critical Thinking Cap to Cat Cody for suggesting this post.




8 thoughts on “What’s a poor Millennial to do?

  1. Helpful, Danderoo, but PR professionals are paid handsomely to be able to distinguish fake from real news. And, if our colleges and universities aren’t teaching them critical thinking skills that will enable them to distinguish fact from fiction, they can easily damage their company’s reputation and their own. It’s a very real problem. And, I agree with previous comments that buying into, and sharing, fake news has no age limits. But, Millennials entrusted with their company, client or agency web site MUST verify the news and information they plan to share or face the consequences.

  2. Part of the problem is that there are so many outlandish stories that ARE true. And it’s not just Millenials who judge their life on how many likes or clicks or views they receive. The more bizarre, scary, disgusting, trashy or bizarre something they do or say is, the better. Common people are more interested in making a spectacle of themselves than leading a normal, private life. Insecurity and a desire to constantly be complimented by complete strangers is society’s driving force. And Trump is leading the charge.

  3. Thanks Steve! Wowza this is a hugely important issue for our industry (and, you know, society as whole). I don’t know if it’s fair to put this on us millennials, since this study only looked at ages 19-30. I suspect with a more expansive study we’d find adults of all age groups with similar results. As you rightly mentioned, this is a pervasive and relatively new issue. That Buzzfeed News survey you shared found fake news headlines fool adults 75% of the time, and those who list Facebook as a key news source are most likely to believe and share fake news (and for the record, 19-30 year-olds make up less than half of active Facebook users in the U.S.).

    If it’s any consolation, I actually think it’s the students and young adults who will lead news literacy as teachers begin adding this topic to the curriculum. Here’s a handy NYT article on teaching and learning about fake news that’s worth a read: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/19/learning/lesson-plans/evaluating-sources-in-a-post-truth-world-ideas-for-teaching-and-learning-about-fake-news.html

  4. So, what’s the answer? I know you read “real” media such as Time Magazine. But, a significant percentage of your peers (and Generation Z) seem perfectly content to believe whatever they read on social sites. That’s extremely dangerous for any PR professional, young or old.

    • One of my accounts used to tell us to take an hour every single day to catch up on headlines to see if we could use them for new pitch angles. Designated reading times would help, like the “no meeting zones” perhaps we can put an hour on the calendar every week that’s mandatory?

  5. Agreed re: WSJ, BBC and Asia Times, Matt. I’d also add NPR to the list. Downloading NPR podcasts to listen during the commute to work is essential.

    Social media only makes things worse because, like you say, headlines are just click bait now. Sometimes the tweet (or FB post) is only a very SMALL part of a larger article, but the catchier the headline the more people will share, comment and like.

  6. I could not agree more. However, it’s going to become incredibly difficult for younger communications pros to discern real from fake news. I truly believe the 2016 general election was a watershed moment for communications/media. Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen news become so trivialized and balkanized that the election of someone like Trump was inevitable.

    Although he was completely unqualified to become president, he was elected because a) we’ve come to worship celebrities, and we love them even more when they show us their “human” mistakes on reality television; and b) the political right created their own news narrative to make Hillary Clinton out to be the antichrist.

    News does not fit the definition of news from 10 years ago. There is almost no objective truth any longer. Media on both left and right spin their coverage to grab eyeballs and drive engagement on the web and social. There’s no turning back.

    However, if I were running a communications shop, I would make it mandatory for staffers to skim the WSJ, BBC and Asia Times websites every, single morning.