For me, the election results were a wake up call.
I came to library school by way of Media Studies. My first graduate degree is in Communication where my research focused on the dissemination of information from the late 19th century to present day. As a teaching assistant, I taught undergraduates how to research and articulate arguments about controversies and public policies. So needless to say, when “fake news” became a trending topic after the 2016 presidential election, I was all ears.
After much listening and reflecting, I’ve been wondering: What can I do as a library student to improve my relationship to news media? Is it possible to apply the ACRL framework to my own news media consumption in ways that will make me more confident in what I read and share? Any good citizen (librarian or not) should be informed on current events. Hopefully, these ideas below will start a conversation about how we can practice what we preach and implement the work of critical media consumption in our personal and professional lives. I had social media in mind when I wrote these down, but I think it could be argued that they also apply to information found in classrooms, newspapers, magazines and even television.
Authority is constructed and contextual
This has been my mantra since immediately following the election. Journalistic authority has been increasingly tested over the last two decades for a variety of financial and technological reasons. I have to remind myself that the authority of an article is not inherent, but something that is constructed–through a journalist’s education, the news agency’s reputation, and ultimately who ends up paying the bills. Lately, I’ve spent a lot more time evaluating articles based on the credentials of the author instead of the news agency. If possible, follow the virtual bread crumbs to the primary sources being cited. It’s not always fruitful, but it’s typically better than wasting my time on unverified information.
Information Creation as a Process
Being a passive consumer of news is convenient, but skimming the headlines doesn’t support a robust understanding of current events. The first step to being more confident in what I know is to understand that stories do not magically appear on the screen in front of me. They are carefully crafted (at least most of the time) through editing, translating, and filtering by multiple players in order to produce what I have before my eyes.
By accepting these stories are not static, but actually dynamic and moving targets, I can begin to have a more fully developed understanding of their power and value. I can begin to take responsibility for the processes by which I find, digest, and share news stories. By transitioning from a passive to an active information seeker, the more confident I will be in what I know and the more ethos I can convey in conversations about current event X, Y, or Z.
Information has value:
I try to to think about the news I consume in a very literal sense–like a diet. In order to have a well-balanced “diet” I take in different kinds of content from a variety of sources. Obviously one can’t be an expert in everything. There are a couple of topics I regularly read up on (media policy, education, Texas) and many more that I will read about from time to time. Do I enjoy the occasional tongue-in-cheek editorializing? Absolutely. But I also try to ground that good humored cynicism with work that’s credible and based on legislative proceedings.
Reading someone’s Tweet isn’t going to provide my information diet with a lot of substance (or reading what someone else says about someone’s Tweet, for that matter). Passing a bill on educational spending–that’s a substantial piece of news I can sink my teeth into. It’s not an easy balance to achieve, especially when I’m busy and or stressed, but I’ve learned to identify what works for me. So, I recommend sensitizing yourself to what value information holds for you. Reflect on what topics you enjoy reading or sharing and why.
Research as Inquiry
Question your sources. Always. For every news story I read, I try to think of at least one question the author didn’t answer. It keeps me from getting too comfortable with what I know and it gives me something fun to ponder while I’m on the bus or making dinner. If you are interested in doing reference work after graduation, this is great practice.
Scholarship as Conversation
As librarians, we do not often dwell on the nature of “truth”. We deal most often in the material and the social– collections and the patrons who use them. On occasion, there are arguments in academic libraries about definitions of scholarship and how that definition is enacted in our policies and day-to-day decisions. To frame scholarship as a conversation is to suggest that legitimacy comes from a certain level of engagement with others about ideas, theories or practices.
I’ve often heard the phrase, “Don’t read the comments.” I would counter with, “Find the conversations worth reading.” There are a lot of nasty places online, but by searching for places where productive discourse is taking place, it makes their discovery all the more sweet. Wikipedia (the organization, not the encyclopedia) actually has some insightful policies on how to have productive conversations over contested topics. Under the right circumstances, the classroom is also a fruitful place to have respectful conversations about current events.
Searching as Strategic Exploration
If you want to win, learn how to play the game. The best way to keep from being overwhelmed and turned off from news media altogether is to know how your platforms work and then use them to your advantage. Create boundaries for yourself and establish news-free times and spaces so that you can be present and mindful when you do decide to catch up on the news of the day.
If you are going to rely exclusively on one platform (such as Facebook), read through their information sharing policies carefully. Content algorithms (the formulas that decide which stories to show you, in what order) are considered proprietary tools and therefore secret, but lots of data scientists are interested in figuring out how they work. This is by no means a comprehensive list and these algorithms are updated frequently, but here are a few resources that introduce the topic of algorithmic sorting based on platform:
Facebook: How Facebook News Feed Works (Techcrunch)
Twitter: Here’s how Twitter’s new timeline is going to work (The Verge)
Snapchat: Publishers and brands, get ready for the Snapchat algorithm (Digiday)
Instagram: Capitalizing on Instagram’s New Algorithm (Forbes)
Google: Forecasting for the Future: How to Track Google Algorithm Updates (Search Engine Journal)
By being more self-aware of my own habits, I can better support the work of my students as many of them, often for the first time, will be delving into current events with a critical eye.
If you are interested in learning more about how journalists perceive information gathering and dissemination, I highly recommend Elements of Journalism, On Bullshit, and anything by Sisela Bok but especially Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation.
Image by OpenClipartVectors at Pixabay [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons