Fighting Fake News

How libraries can lead the way on media literacy

December 27, 2016

Fake news (illustration by Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries)
Illustration: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

Librarians—whether public, school, academic, or special—all seek to ensure that patrons who ask for help get accurate information.

Given the care that librarians bring to this task, the recent explosion in unverified, unsourced, and sometimes completely untrue news has been discouraging, to say the least. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of US adults are getting their news in real time from their social media feeds. These are often uncurated spaces in which falsehoods thrive, as revealed during the 2016 election. To take just one example, Pope Francis did not endorse Donald Trump, but thousands of people shared the “news” that he had done so.

Completely fake news is at the extreme end of a continuum. Less blatant falsehoods involve only sharing the data that puts a proposal in its best light, a practice of which most politicians and interest group spokespeople are guilty.

The news-savvy consumer is able to distinguish fact from opinion and to discern the hallmarks of evasive language and half-truths. But growing evidence suggests that these skills are becoming rarer. A November 2016 study by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) showed that students have difficulty separating paid advertising from news reporting, and they are apt to overlook clear evidence of bias in the claims they encounter. These challenges persist from middle school to college.

According to SHEG Director Sam Wineburg, professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, “nothing less than our capacity for online civic reasoning is at risk.”

Librarians and journalists: natural allies

Librarians can help change this trend. “Librarians are natural allies for educators in helping students become critical news consumers,” says Wineburg. The profession’s deep commitment to verified sources and reliable information mirrors similar values—accountability for accuracy, careful research before drawing firm conclusions, and a willingness to correct errors—that drive responsible journalism.

One emerging solution among journalists is the Trust Project, an initiative of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara (Calif.) University.

Headed by longtime reporter Sally Lehrman, director of Santa Clara’s journalism ethics program, the Trust Project has partnered with nearly 70 media organizations to develop a collection of color-coded digital “Trust Indicators” that signify reliable and responsible reporting. Indicators include a commitment to seeking diverse perspectives, linking out to credible sources of further information, offering clear markers regarding whether an article presents opinion or news, and providing information about an article’s author. The complete set is available at the Trust Project website.

Still in the works for the project is computer code that will allow partner media organizations to note when they have achieved a Trust Indicator, which serves as a proxy for reliable journalism. This code should be broadly available by mid-2017. Services such as Facebook and Google would surface these materials more prominently in news feeds and search results, while readers would see clear visual icons that demonstrate fulfillment of the Trust Indicators. As Lehrman explains, “These icons would be cognitive shortcuts to route readers to more reliable sources of news.”

She also notes a strong desire by consumers to be active participants in the shaping of the news, rather than merely a passive audience. In that spirit, she welcomes input and feedback from librarians about how to best achieve the aims of the Trust Project.

Direct collaboration with journalists is another route to increasing media literacy. For example, the Dallas Public Library (DPL) will host an eight-week training course in community journalism for high school students. Its “Storytellers without Borders” project, one of the winners of the 2016 Knight News Challenge, includes oversight from professional librarians as well as reporters at the Dallas Morning News. Students will rotate among three DPL branch locations that represent the socioeconomic and cultural diversity of the city. Journalists will mentor students on how to ask focused questions, while librarians will describe how to use research databases to find accurate information. Library staffers will also provide instruction on how to use multimedia editing tools. In April 2017 these budding digital journalists, with their new skills in the art of providing credible and engaging content, will showcase their efforts at the Dallas Book Festival.

Information literacy at your library

The Trust Project and “Storytellers without Borders” are high-profile efforts, but any library can lead educational programs about the importance of media literacy.

As the SHEG study reveals, this training should begin with young students and continue through college. Resources that range from free LibGuides to enhanced school curricula are available for libraries around the country.

Librarians at Indiana University East in Richmond have developed a LibGuide about how to identify fake news, complete with detailed images of what questions to ask while perusing a site. The News Literacy Project, founded by former Los Angeles Times reporter Alan Miller, offers a comprehensive curriculum of classroom, after-school, and e-learning programs for middle and high school students; the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University offers similar resources for teaching college students.

Despite the clear need for increased media literacy, one risk is that this topic will always be perceived as optional—nice to know but not essential. Wineburg argues that this is misguided. “Online civic literacy is a core skill that should be insinuated into the warp and woof of education as much as possible,” he says. In a paper for College & Research Libraries News, Brian T. Sullivan, information literacy librarian, and Karen L. Porter, sociology professor, of Alfred (N.Y.) University map out how to convert those one-shot information literacy training sessions into full programs with embedded librarians.

Librarians can play a vital role in helping everyone, of any age, become critical and reflective news consumers. One positive outcome of the current furor about fake news may be that information literacy, for media and other types of content, will finally be recognized as a central skill of the digital age.


Librarian's Library: Karen Muller

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