Report: High school students show strong support for the First Amendment but express low levels of trust in the media

MIAMI – Dec. 5, 2018 – As concerns over free speech, declining trust in news and the impact of misinformation on American democracy surge, a new report reveals that high school students strongly support First Amendment rights, but express low levels of trust in the media.

Released today, the national study of 9,774 high school students and 498 teachers is the eighth in a series of national surveys of high school students and teachers commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation over the last 12 years. This year’s survey incorporated several questions from Gallup’s Free Expression on Campus survey of college students, released in 2018, in order to compare the two surveys. 

Eighty-nine percent of high school students agree that “people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions,” consistent with previous Knight surveys of high school students. The report suggests that students who more frequently consume news and actively engage with it on social media are also the ones who are most supportive of First Amendment rights.

Students and teachers also weighed in on journalism and the First Amendment, as well as their attitudes about trust. Almost half (49 percent) of high school students and more than half of teachers (51 percent) say they have not much or not any trust in the media to report news accurately and fairly. College students, too, expressed almost identical levels of trust in the media in the Knight-Gallup survey released earlier this year.

“High school students continue to show strong support for First Amendment freedoms, but they don’t trust all of the expression it protects. They are increasingly skeptical of the ability of news media to report fairly and accurately. This is a wake-up call from an emerging generation,” said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for communities and impact.

Other key study findings include:

  • Students express strong support for the First Amendment but do favor some limits to free speech: An overwhelming majority of students support the right to express unpopular opinions (89 percent), however only 45 percent of students believe people have the right to speech that others consider offensive. Still, when forced to choose which is more important, students by a 5-to-1 ratio (65 percent to 12 percent) say protecting free speech is more important than protecting people from offensive speech. 
  • News engagement and trust has declined: In addition to low levels of trust in news, students report lower news consumption and engagement. The sharpest drops were reported for consumption of local TV news and cable TV news. Thirty percent reported watching local news often in 2016 versus 14 percent in 2018. Similarly, 26 percent reported watching cable news often versus 12 percent in 2018. Engagement with news on social media also dipped. Only 46 percent of students say they often use social media to get news, compared with 51 percent in 2016. 
  • Student trust in citizen journalism is on the rise: In 2016, 26 percent of students said they trusted content — pictures, videos and accounts — posted by people more than traditional news sources; this number grew to 40 percent in 2018. Teachers also show large increases in trust for citizen journalism efforts. 
  • Students believe social media has had a negative effect on free expression: About half of high-school students (53 percent) believe social media stifles expression because people block those with opposing views and because the fear of negative encounters makes people less likely to share their views. A greater share of college students in the Gallup survey agree (59 percent) about these negative effects on free expression.
  • Students believe that the internet is fueling hate speech: Seventy-percent of high school students believe the internet is responsible for a significant increase in hate speech, though college students are more likely to think this way (82 percent). College students (68 percent) are also more likely than high school students (47 percent) to believe that social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, have a responsibility to limit hate speech on their platforms.
  • Students don’t view “fake news” as a threat to democracy: Less than a quarter (21 percent) of high school students view fake news as a significant threat to democracy. In contrast, 40 percent of teachers view it as a threat to democracy. Most students say they have come across fake news stories, yet only 20 percent say they are very confident in their own ability to recognize inaccurate news. A majority of students believe that both the government and social networking site operators bear some responsibility to prevent fake news.
  • High school students are more likely than college students to believe hate speech should be protected by the First Amendment: Though less than half (46 percent) of high school students believe hate speech constitutes expression protected by the First Amendment, this is significantly greater than the share of college students (35 percent), who responded to a separate survey.

“The massive changes in the media environment over the past few decades has led to shifts in how high school students use and feel about the media. While basic support for speech and press freedoms has been unwavering, to ensure a bright future for the First Amendment, we must seek to understand the evolving forces that shape it,” said Kenneth Dautrich, author of the report and president of The Stats Group.

“The report holds important implications for the future of the First Amendment. It also provides insights to journalists and news organizations as they explore ways to address issues with public trust,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism. 

This report is part of Knight Foundation’s efforts to promote press freedom and information access and ensure that the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment are preserved. Knight Foundation has made many investments in this area and supported the launch of the Knight First Amendment Institute in collaboration with Columbia University.

To read the full report visit:

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit


Anusha Alikhan, Director of Communications, Knight Foundation, 305-908-2677, [email protected]