In the wake of a contentious U.S. presidential election cycle, researchers and educators are shining a spotlight on critical “information literacy” skills. Determining authority, accuracy, and bias have long been essential aspects of analyzing content and sources of information. Today, this is no easy task for students (and adults as well) when authors of “information” do their best to deceive readers or hide their identity behind domains, such as .org, factual-seeming but phony statistical data, and authoritative-sounding language based on “pants of fire” lies.
In her 2014 book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, researcher danah boyd wrote, “becoming literate in a networked age requires hard work, regardless of age” (177). While the amount of fake “news” has increased exponentially, the problem of determining authority and validity in information sources has been a critical skill since the early days of the Internet.
How long have school librarians been challenging students to determine the bias in Stormfront’s Martin Luther King Jr. Web site (a site often used by David Duke) began using it in 2002 when I moved from an elementary to a high school position, and I am certain others were using it before me. (See the 7.3 Category Matrix from Coteaching Reading Comprehension Strategies in Secondary School Libraries: Maximizing Your Impact Challenging “Determining Main Ideas” Lesson Plan.)
Researchers at Stanford University recently conducted and released the results of a 2015-2016 study, “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning.” The study showed what school and academic librarians have known through their own observations and action research related to middle, high school, and college-level students’ information literacy proficiency: “Young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak” (4).
Last week on LM_NET, school librarian Andrew van Zyl of St. Alban’s College, Pretoria, South Africa, raised the responsibilities of school librarians in a “post-truth” world when he posted information about Oxford Dictionaries’ announcement that “post-truth” reflects the “passing year in language.” It defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Some who entered the conversation wondered if librarians should be engaged in “politics.” For me the answer is clear. Literacy is “political” because it empowers people. From my perspective, school librarians are required to teach youth to determine the authority and accuracy of information and we are charged with coteaching with classroom teachers to ensure that students are information literate.
Taken together, “fake news” in a “post-truth” world create an even greater need for the information literacy expertise of school librarians. Information is supposed to be factual, whether or not it is considered “news.” (Even in the halcyon days when people read printed newspapers, reporters and editors frequently rushed to “get ahead of the story” and published “errors” that later had to be corrected.) When school librarians bring their expertise to the collaboration table, they can coteach with classroom teachers to help students develop critical literacy skills that are even more essential in the online information environment.
I think this recent post on FactCheck.org “How to Spot Fake News” shows what librarians have long called “information literacy” is finally getting traction as a set of must-have skills for 21st-century students and adults as well: (Information literacy and reading comprehension skills in parentheses)
• Consider the source. (Authority)
• Read beyond the headline. (Authority)
• Check the author. (Authority)
• What’s the support? (Accuracy and Reliability)
• Check the date. (Relevance and Reliability)
• Is this some kind of joke? (New in the post-truth world!)
• Check your biases. (Questioning)
• Consult the experts. (Questioning)
Like all educators, school librarians must continually self-assess and develop our skills. But we have a strong information literacy foundation on which to build and the desire and responsibility to share our expertise with students, colleagues, and community. Fake “news” and a “post-truth” world call all school librarians to step up and lead.
boyd, dana. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.
Robertson, Lori, and Eugene Kiely. “How to Spot Fake News,” FactCheck.org. November 18, 2016, http://www.factcheck.org/2016/11/how-to-spot-fake-news/
Stanford History Education Group. “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning: Executive Summary,” Stanford University. 22 Nov. 2016, https://sheg.stanford.edu/upload/V3LessonPlans/Executive%20Summary%2011.21.16.pdf
Image Credit: Newspaper Clipping created at Fodey.com
Additional Recommended Reading:
Stevenson, Sara. “Information Literacy Lessons Crucial in a Post-Truth World,” Knowledge Quest Blog, 18 Nov. 2016,
Valenza, Joyce. “Truth, Truthiness, Triangulation, and the Librarian Way: A News Literacy Toolkit for a Post-truth World,” Neverending Search Blog, 26 Nov. 2016, http://blogs.slj.com/neverendingsearch/2016/11/26/truth-truthiness-triangulation-and-the-librarian-way-a-news-literacy-toolkit-for-a-post-truth-world/
I enjoyed reading this post. I’m writing to express my frustration at a particular situation I find myself in: I have recently moved from an open, democratic internet culture to a closed, internet controlled society. My students are not native English speakers, and their online lives take place in a language which I don’t understand and is not written in the Roman alphabet. These teens possess a singular combination of indifference and jadedness regarding truth, news, and information literacy. I don’t even know where to start with them sometimes! When we discuss politics or the recent US election, it seems funny and somehow normal to them.
Anyway, thank you for “listening” to my comment. I hope that over time some of what we are doing will sink in.
Susan, Thank you for sharing the complexity of the literacy learning and teaching situation in which you work. Your comment about your students thinking that the recent US election cycle was “funny” and somehow “normal” to them struck a cord with me. I, for one, hope that U.S. politicians’ and voters’ recent electoral experience is not a “new normal.” Wishing you the best in your work.
I thought it was very interesting–and quite telling!–that the Stanford study was released right around the time “post-truth” was chosen as the word of the year. Definitely two facets of the same issue.
Great article, Judy. Just an FYI, the Stormfront site is owned by Don Black, not David Duke. And since we librarians love diving into the rabbit hole, here’s a link to an editorial by Black’s son, who was being groomed to take over the white supremacy site but has disavowed that movement: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/26/opinion/sunday/why-i-left-white-nationalism.html
Thank you for the link, Mary. It’s good to know that Stormfront’s founder Don Black and David Duke’s godson has left the white nationalist fold. I appreciate the correction. Best, Judi