From the Desk of Janet Coats: What Gen Z Can Teach Us About Trust in News

CTMT Managing Director Janet Coats took on a teaching role this semester, and the perspectives on media expressed by her students were eye-opening. 

Coats’ “Journalism, Justice and Civic Change” course was a three-credit exposé into the world of media power dynamics and news consumption habits. What it also turned out to be was a breeding ground for conversations on how journalism is conducted, received by the public and how trust is built, fostered by a group of students virtually devoid of journalism background.

The value of that perspective can prove to be golden to newsmakers in doing better journalism and laying the building blocks for trust. What there is to be gained from this course as a listening exercise can prove just as valuable as high-level research on the issues facing trust in media and media habits. 

Coats shares her thoughts on what she’s learned from the class and the insights on media culture from Gen Z’s bird’s eye view. 


As I wrap up the first course I’ve taught at the University of Florida, I’m reflecting on what my students taught me about journalism and trust.

From the start, I was facing an audience with an interest in journalism mostly on a casual level. You really have to stand and deliver when called upon to explain how journalism works and how it should work.

The 35-student class, called “Journalism, Justice and Civic Change,” had only five students from the College of Journalism and Communications. The others were drawn from majors as diverse as kinesiology, mechanical engineering and theatre performance. The class meets general education and writing requirements. Some of my students told me that they signed up for the class because a lot of other courses were full, and this sounded less boring than the remaining options.

Their understanding of journalism came as young news consumers who largely (pretty much exclusively) get their news as a social media afterthought. Their perceptions of journalism ranged from apathy to neutrality to vague disapproval. Trust was not high on the list of characteristics that leapt to mind.

A semester’s worth of discussion about what journalism is and what it could be led the students to a greater understanding of the qualities that make for trustworthy news.

And in the process, it made me fall in love with journalism’s mission all over again.

Our discussions included:

  • Objectivity: This is a word I’ve had a complicated relationship with for a long time. My students made me consider its meaning anew. The students latched on with surprising vigor to the idea that objectivity is a process and not a state of being. They understood, in a way that many journalists don’t, that objective inquiry does not mean that you treat all viewpoints equally. It means following facts, then being proportional in evaluating what you find. Objectivity doesn’t mean “both sides” coverage or giving weight to what is demonstrably untrue. For them, journalism should have a bias: toward the idea that all human beings deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.
  • Representation: They understood instinctively that the most important voices in any story are of those who are directly impacted and that journalists should center those perspectives rather than those of “official” sources. When we discussed the Uvalde school shooting, they were passionate about the need for reporters on the scene who could interview residents in Spanish. One of my students proposed the concept of “journalism Miranda rights” for those touched by tragedies so that they understood how interviews worked and that they have an absolute right to say no. I’d never thought of it that way before; it’s an idea I’ll reflect on.
  • Transparency: They appreciated the value of transparency, of “showing the math,” as one student said. They found stories are more credible to them when journalists explain how they did the work and provide the data underlying their reporting.

At the core of all these conversations was the question of what builds trust. As is true for most of us, the students said they expect news to “find them” if it was important. By the end of the course, most of them said they’d increased their news-seeking behavior and that understanding what to look for in credible news made them more inclined to do that.

As one of the students said in our final discussion, “Journalism is harder than I thought.”

My answer to that is: it should be hard.

The stakes are high – nothing less than our democracy is at stake. The message from the students in IDS2935 is this: Practice the craft with rigor, with transparency, with proportion, always centering the voices of those most affected by the news. Remember who you are working for.

That’s a starting place for trust.