In a 'post-truth' era, the ability to discern between reliable and unreliable sources of information is essential. As a skill set, information literacy allows the consumer to evaluate both data and news sources. This is increasingly important in an environment rife with ‘alternative facts’ and fake news. Libraries and librarians are uniquely situated to address the problem of growing information illiteracy. For years, university librarians have instructed students on the research process, helping them to establish the foundational skills required for scholarship. This same pedagogical approach can be used to develop media literacy competencies for the digital age within the broader community.
Libraries can offer guidance for consumers wishing to better identify dependable news sources, or conversely, to develop the critical thinking skills needed to spot more dubious news stories. The librarians of the American University Library offer their insights on the connection between information literacy and an informed electorate, as well as practical suggestions for becoming a media-savvy reader.
As the phrase ‘alternative facts’ enters the national consciousness and many Americans look to social media platforms as valid sources for news, distinguishing fact from fiction becomes ever more challenging. Fabricated stories, now referred to as fake news, may be picked up by legitimate news outlets and then re-posted elsewhere, obscuring their disreputable provenance. Additionally, news feeds provided through websites like Facebook use algorithms to determine the interests and political alignment of users, effectively curating their selection of news stories.
Gwendolyn Reece, Associate University Librarian and Director of Research, Teaching and Learning, describes this as a “problematic system of recommendations that reinforces the echo chamber.” As Facebook uses a preferential ranking algorithm to determine the content and order of an individual’s news feed, that material narrows in scope to reflect the biases of the user. Social media as a news source poses other problems as well. When trusted colleagues or friends share news items, it is easy to assume that the news story itself is trustworthy or that the sharer has already vetted the source. The ease with which one can go on to share that same story with their own network allows for a piece of unsubstantiated information to spread widely and quickly. Assistant Librarian Derrick Jefferson proposes that mindful analysis and corroboration are two of the best tools to combat the spread of misinformation, saying, “do not blindly accept a headline as a fact.”
Jefferson stresses that research is a skill that can be improved with practice, but that the first step is establishing a set of trusted sources. “Bypass the emotional appeals to fear and the clickbait. If you see a piece of information on Facebook or Twitter, go check a reliable news source to corroborate the story.” With his background in journalism, Jefferson tends to trust legacy news organizations and reads the Washington Post and New York Times each day. “Online, anyone can present themselves as an expert. It is up to each of us to be an informed consumer of media.”
Reece believes that informed and engaged citizens are essential to maintaining a democracy, and that libraries have an important role to play in helping Americans develop broader information literacy skills. “Libraries as institutions are safeguards to protect democracy. Libraries provide access to information, advocate for the transparency and preservation of government records, and protect people’s right to read, study, and research any subject without government interference.” Public and academic libraries offer their users access to services that might not otherwise be available, from basic internet access to exorbitantly expensive databases. Jefferson notes that not only do university and public libraries invest a great deal of money in vetted services and resources, “libraries are home to a great deal of expertise and citizens can take advantage of that knowledge base. As librarians, we want to help people assess bias and make sense of the noise.”
Both librarians stress the importance of treating research as a learned life skill. Reece argues that “research is not just for school; it is about establishing the baseline of civic literacy that allows our democracy to function.” She also understands the temptation to take shortcuts when it comes to following the news, saying, “most of us lead lives with very little free time and it may seem simpler to rely on others to determine what we read, but that can be very dangerous. It is too easy to fall into the hole of information bias when we do not take the time to verify information externally or look up the meaning of an unfamiliar term.”
“Nobody wants to be played,” says Jefferson, “so don’t play yourself. Double and triple check what you read, go deeper, and ask questions. Research is not just about learning how to write a paper. Critical analysis is a skill that you can apply throughout your life, at work and as a citizen.”
Practical Advice for the Media-Savvy Reader
- Develop a go-to list of trusted sources and writers.
- Look for indications of bias - check the affiliations of the source and author.
- Be on the lookout for sponsored content.
- Corroborate the story by checking other sources.
- If you can, support your trusted sources with a subscription or donation.