What the news media can learn from librarians

October 24, 2016
Photo by Rich Grundy

We can all agree it’s been a rough season for the news media. Hostile political crowds, accusations of slander, and struggles with what Guardian editor Katharine Viner has called the “waning power of evidence” and “diminishing status of truth.”

Today more than ever, the news media’s role as a mediator and gatekeeper of civic discourse is being questioned. Jeffrey Rutenbeck, American University’s Dean of the School of Communication, voiced what many are feeling when he observed in a recent Knight Foundation report, “Journalism has had the luxury of not having to ask itself the existential question of why anyone should pay any attention to us at all.”

He proposed an interesting way to tackle the problem. “I think journalists could learn a lot from hanging around with successful librarians.”

Why librarians? Their job is to navigate the world of information, help scholars and students get what they need, and distinguish good information from bad. They’ve faced their own technological disruptions, and have responded by developing a set of principles to help their public assess the credibility of information and use it ethically. They call this framework “information literacy.”

Olivia Ivey, an AU public affairs librarian and specialist on information literacy, says its principles help students to pay attention to the source of information, ask whether it can be verified, and consider the context. Success, she says, is when a student inquires, “Says who? Based on what authority? What evidence?” An outstanding practitioner goes further and refutes inaccurate information.

Today’s information landscape challenges many long-held assumptions. Take the issue of plagiarism. In a 2015 journal article, two University of Maryland librarians described the challenges they faced teaching freshmen about citing sources, plagiarism, and academic integrity. The students were skeptical. The lesson did not correspond to their experiences on social media, where information is routinely recycled, repackaged, and repurposed.

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So the librarians used Twitter to demonstrate their point, citing the case of a user who plagiarized comedians’ tweets, changing the wording slightly to avoid detection by search engines. This time the students understood the harm being done.

Illustrating the ongoing complexity of these issues, however, students then asked about using the same material on different media platforms. They wondered if there was such a thing as “self-plagiarism.”

The kind of discussion that led to the students’ awareness of these issues is an important principle of information literacy. It’s not a passive approach or a checklist. It’s a dynamic process that occurs through conversation and discourse. Acknowledging this, the librarians called their article “Scholarship is a Conversation.”

Conversation is also the theme of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age, the latest book by MIT professor and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle. She studies technology’s impact on people and their relationships. She believes the public’s increased reliance on digital communication and social media at the expense of face-to-face conversation is harming civic discourse, impairing people’s ability to listen to alternative viewpoints and to develop skills to dialogue, compromise, and build consensus.

She paints an unflattering portrait of the news media in her chapter on public discourse. She says her students believe the media supports a view of the world as a series of emergencies, an unending series of catastrophes it covers as “disasters that need disaster relief.”

Seen on their mobile devices, snippets of life–tragic, joyful, heroic, unjust–scroll by on a screen, accompanied by personalized ads. Opinion and sentiment outweigh facts. It’s difficult to place information in context or understand underlying causes, let alone feel empowered to seek solutions.

Perhaps as a consequence, they are less interested in news. A Pew Research Center report found adults aged 18 to 29 have more negative attitudes towards the news media and are much less likely to engage with news than older adults. They are the least likely to say the media is doing a good job. Only 28 percent say they are very loyal to their sources of news, the lowest percentage of any age group. Although they prefer to get their news online and are more likely to see it on social networking sites, many don’t trust information they get there. They are more likely than other age groups to sense media bias.

The information literacy framework offers them a more meaningful way to engage with and manage information. The librarians encourage users to focus on inquiry rather than opinion, to evaluate a range of sources, take into account diverse viewpoints and perspectives, and to develop the ability to pursue new avenues as they gain new understanding.

They also urge users to assess the value of information in its various forms. Is it being used as a commodity, a way to understand the world, a means to influence, a path to educate, or some combination of these? They regard users not only as knowledge consumers, but also as knowledge creators.

By this point, you are probably wondering how a longtime journalist and media educator (that’s me) got interested in librarians (delightful people, by the way.) It began when I started to look at possibilities for collaboration between the media, communities, and research institutions like universities to address many issues that now go uncovered due to lack of resources.

Three different cultures, some with a mixture of public and/or private funding, they need a common language to communicate. Rummaging through librarians’ toolkits, I found a treasure trove of resources newsrooms could use. Information literacy is one of them.

If utilizing this framework can help journalists begin to persuade a skeptical public that the media is making a genuine effort to understand them and present them with credible information, that’s a big step forward. Many news organizations are taking strides in this direction by reinstating or adding internal fact-checking operations.

For journalists, the framework can serve as a navigational tool to help chart a course in destabilized terrain, and around social media echo chambers. It adds a needed element to the traditional gatekeeper, “All the News That [We Think] is Fit to Print” approach, to which an information literacy user would respond, “Says who? On what authority?”

It’s a critical component for news organizations that may wish to collaborate with the public on a project. There needs to be some common understanding of how information will be evaluated and used. It also signals a journalist is open to diverse perspectives and the possibility of changing his or her mind, moving towards what New York Times public editor Liz Spayd calls “a dynamic relationship that feels more like a conversation.”

Louise Lief is Scholar in Residence at the American University School of Communication Investigative Reporting Workshop.