GOULD: Student loan forgiveness narrative shows Americans are sitting ducks for media manipulation

Given that individuals read so little, many may be unwittingly misled by incomplete or deceptively framed information.

All readers should adopt higher standards, reading more thoroughly and examining data sets.

Even for higher-literacy readers, scanning text is a common behavior, according to Jakob Nielsen, Principal of the Nielsen Norman Group. A study conducted by the consulting group on how people read online indicates that the average reader only reads a fraction of the content available.

“We know that people don’t read digital content completely,” the group’s summary of “How People Read Online: The Eyetracking Evidence,” says. The average reader has “time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.” 

Given that individuals read so little, many may be unwittingly misled by incomplete or deceptively framed information.  

Take the introductory sentences from a recent Higher Ed Dive article regarding President Biden’s student debt cancellation plan: 

“Almost half of Americans, 47%, support the Biden administration’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt for borrowers who earn less than $125,000 annually, according to a new USA Today/Ipsos poll,” the article opens.

While not untrue, this framing and lack of context obscures the fact that most Americans fall into the category of either not supporting the plan or having no opinion at all – an obscurity that most readers may never unveil given the unlikely event they read past the introduction. 

Responding to Campus Reform’s inquiries about the methodology of the USA Today/Ipsos poll cited by Higher Ed Dive, Sarah Feldman, Senior Data Journalist at Ipsos, clarified that of those surveyed “47% support the plan, 12% don’t know, and 41% oppose it.” 

She also clarified nearly 40% of the 1,029 surveyed have student loans, a detail that Higher Ed Dive does not mention at all. 

Asking an individual with student loans if he or she would like their debt forgiven, is like asking an astronomer if the world is a sphere: most are going to say yes. 

And that is exactly how individuals with student loans responded: they said yes! “83%” of them, in fact, according to Feldman. 

This is not to imply any flaw in the methodology. By including individuals with student loan debt, a group that encompasses over 40 million Americans, the survey achieves a representative sampling. 

But the methodology, especially in a poll like this– where respondees often have tangible skin in the game– should at least be acknowledged. 

Further, even when some publications do mention the details of the survey population, they do so at the end of the article as a formality. 

For instance, Ipsos, the company responsible for conducting the survey, stated in its summary of the results that  “Nearly half of Americans support forgiving up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt or $10,000 for non-Pell Grant recipients.”

To Ipsos’ credit, the summary quickly cites that support for student loan forgiveness is favored by those with student debt, but it does not mention that 399 of those surveyed have student debt until near the end of the summary under the section “About the Study.” 

Again, that is a detail most readers will miss when they only read 20% of available content. 

By reading thoroughly, one may come to recognize that the “nearly half” narrative of widespread support, which is framed in introductory sentences, is not holistic. 

In my previous analysis titled “Academia is adrift in a sea of low standards,” I referred to a November 2022 study by Professors Philip Babcock of the University of California Santa Barbara and Mindy Marks of the University of California Riverside. The study revealed that today’s college students spend just 14 hours per week reading, compared to 24 hours in 1961. Leaning on those findings, I argued for higher standards and an improvement in the academic rigor of college students.

But Higher Ed Dive’s reporting and Ipsos’ introductory framing underscore the importance of reading thoroughly and not being misled by reading just 20% of available content and demands that it is not just college students who should be called to higher standards. 

All readers should adopt higher standards, reading more thoroughly and examining data sets.  By becoming critical readers, we can gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of public opinion.

Follow Jared Gould on Twitter.