Over the course of the fall semester, I had the opportunity to visit a handful of classes to speak on news literacy. I began by posing the question, “Does the news media take sides?” Though a small sample, nearly 100 percent of students I polled distrusted the media. I found this wariness of the mainstream media echoed throughout classes I visited—on campuses ranging from rural Humphreys County, TN, to just a few miles outside downtown Nashville—as I quizzed students on their news habits. This shouldn’t have surprised me given recent polls showing the country’s distrust for the mass media at historical highs. But these were millennials I was polling, not old white men tuned into Fox News 24/7. I’d expected less cynicism.
News must come to them
Most commonly, I posed the question, “Where do you get your news?” My favorite reply—“If it’s important, I’ll find out”—was frighteningly honest. Many students seconded this response, explaining that they get most of their news by word of mouth—a dangerous game of telephone in an election year rife with misconstructions. Despite their reputation for being tech savvy, supposed digital natives appear to have some troubling news consumption habits, at least according to these impromptu polls. Along with word of mouth, social media was the preferred way to stay in the know. An occasional student mentioned the local news or CNN. Newspapers (digital and print) were considered passé or not to be trusted.
I watched one student’s eyes bug out, his mouth agape, as I told his classmates that their Facebook feeds mirrored their beliefs, and that Facebook is not a news organization. It wants you to feel the warm, fuzzy feelings of confirmation bias as you scroll through your news feed, enticing you to stay a spell. I followed up with a tour through the Wall Street Journal’s “Blue Feed, Red Feed”—a project designed to illustrate the echo chambers our social media accounts generate. Our students aren’t so much living in echo chambers as post-news isolation chambers where the news must find them organically, virally—whether through friends, a headline on Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat, or (better yet!) a meme. Their news is something to be caught, not sought.
When I ask students, “When referring to the media, what are sources?”, students were rarely able to answer. As librarians, we discuss how to evaluate sources for research. We arrive at our one-shot instructional sessions armed with an arsenal of hoax sites (I’m starting to think the Tree Octopus hoax was created by librarians, for librarians). We do the CRAAP test. We emphasize that databases have reliable sources: “Just use the databases and you’ll be OK!” we cheer. We create checklists and fun new acronyms, all in an attempt to paint a black-and-white picture of the grayest of concepts: trustworthiness. Since many of us graduated from library school, evaluation of sources has evolved into a more nuanced topic, more relevant now than ever. You can no longer judge a website by its cover—fake news sites are just as slick as legit news sites. Sites like Buzzfeed mix hard news with fluff, opinion, and kitty cat pics.
Learning news literacy
But it’s not just about avoiding getting hoodwinked. It’s about news literacy—understanding balance, fairness, and bias. News literacy extends beyond political spin and talking heads. And resources for incorporating news literacy into your one-shots abound. What about bad sourcing? The New York Times created a checklist for source verification—and (bonus!) it’s acronym-based! The News Literacy Project and the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University provide detailed lesson plans. There’s even room to incorporate news literacy into subject-specific instruction. In May 2016, for instance, John Oliver gave “bad science” journalism the smackdown. Science Librarians: Quartz has lesson plans for you here.
News and media literacy are critically underrepresented at the secondary and post-secondary levels. As librarians, we should be at the forefront of advocating for curriculum designed to make students critical thinkers and savvy consumers of information. While most of our students will abandon academic research the day they turn in their last college research paper, they will continue to be bombarded by miracle cures, truthiness, hoaxes, conspiracy theorists, bad sourcing, and unverified lies. And that’s just on Facebook.
Emily Bush is Coordinator of Library Instruction at Tennessee’s Nashville State Community College