Information Literacy and Fake News

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Information Literacy and Faculty Outreach, and Scott Dunn, Associate Professor of Communication, at Radford University.

One day in September, a relative emailed me a link and asked, “Should I share this on Facebook?”  I took a look at the linked article, which had an extremely loaded-language headline and made some brutal accusations about one of the presidential candidates.  I didn’t recognize the news source hosting the article, and none of the more mainstream news sites mentioned the story. I visited my go-to fact checkers, like PolitiFact and Snopes, but found nothing about the article topic or the site. I told my relative that I couldn’t verify anything in the story or the site, so I recommended she not share it further through social media.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my first real engagement with what came to be called “fake news.”  Since the election, much has been written about this phenomena, with Politifact calling it the 2016 Lie of the Year.  Librarians have pointed out that acceptance of fake news shows a weakness of information literacy skills, and have published suggestions on how libraries can counteract fake news here and here (to name just a few). The Stanford study has added fuel to the discussion, suggesting university students have very weak evaluation skills.

Of course, as just about any instruction librarian will tell you, source evaluation is a complex skill. As Mike Caulfield so eloquently argues in his piece, Yes, Digital Literacy. But Which One?,  an information seeker needs a certain amount of subject expertise to truly judge whether a source on the topic is credible. And in this NSFW article, Chuck Wendig explores some of the problems of convincing people to read an article that goes against their worldview with an open mind.

But as an instruction librarian, I’m not ready to throw in the towel. Our students are going to read fake news, and I think we can encourage them to approach sources critically. As I posted to the ILI-Listserv in September 2016:

We have a solid lesson plan for evaluating Web sites  but I’m looking for one that focuses on news sites.  For example, there were a lot of conflicting reports about what actually happened during Trump’s visit to Flint last week. How could the average person figure out which story to trust?  What can we teach in a one-shot that would help students to evaluate the media?… My ideal lesson plan could be taught to freshmen in a 50-minute workshop, would be very hands-on, and would not leave them thinking, “All media are biased, therefore you can’t trust any of them.”

I discussed my quest with a few colleagues. My conversation with Dr. Scott Dunn, professor of communication, was the one that gave me the most traction. Scott’s research interests include politics and mass media, so he had been watching the fake news about the presidential election with interest. He understood my concerns that common suggestions for evaluating sources often centered on superficial characteristics, such as whether the site looked professional, or used criteria which were not as appropriate for news sites, like the URL’s top-level domain name (.com, .edu, .org). I proposed that readers needed to analyze the content of the stories themselves and look for hallmarks of quality, but I wasn’t sure what those might be, or what would be realistic to expect from your average, non-expert reader.

We first grappled with a definition for “fake news.” While it initially seemed to mean hyperpartisan stories, did it also include intentionally fake ones, like the satirical Onion? What about stories that turned out to be false, such as The Washington Post’s (now corrected) story about Russians hacking into the electric grid?  More recently, people have begun using the phrase “fake news” whenever a story doesn’t fit their world view. As Margaret Sullivan wrote in her piece, It’s time to retire the tainted term fake news, “Faster than you could say ‘Pizzagate,’ the label has been co-opted to mean any number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.”

Rather than focus on identifying fake news, then, we decided it made more sense to teach students how to recognize good journalism. This dovetailed well with my initial instinct to focus on the quality of the content. Scott and I, with some help from the Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy, developed these tips:

  1. Avoid judgments based solely on the source. Immediately following the election, there were numerous attempts to quantify which sites were trustworthy, such as Melissa Zimdars’ False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources and infographics that attempted to showcase media outlets’ biases. The methodology used to classify sources is often opaque, and it’s impossible for anyone to keep up with all the Websites purporting to be news. Many sites may also have a range of credibility. Buzzfeed has published some strong political pieces, but it also pushes listicles and silly quizzes, making it hard to say it’s always an authoritative source.
  2. Refer to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. While it is written for journalists, many of the principles are ones a reader can identify in a story, such as whether the author seemed to verify facts; took care not to oversimplify or sensationalize a story, even in its headline; and explained why anonymous sources needed to be unnamed.
  3. Differentiate between perspective and bias. Having and writing from a point of view is not the same as cherry picking your facts and twisting a story unfairly. We should be able to read something that doesn’t fit our own world view with an open mind, and not automatically reject it as “biased.” We should also help learners understand the difference between editorials and commentaries, which are intended to be argumentative and express strong opinions, and news stories, which should not. Good news journalism will not mix the two.
  4. Find the original source of the story. Many sites will harvest news stories and then repackage them without any additional research or reporting. Like a game of telephone, the farther away you get from the original report, the more mangled and corrupted the story becomes. Often the original story will be linked, so you can just click to access it.  Encourage students to read this story, rather than relying on the secondary telling.
  5. Check your passion. If a story incites you, it may be too good or too outrageous to be true. For example, the pope did not endorse Trump OR Bernie Sanders. These stories can be created by satirical sites and then picked up by other outlets, which treat them as straight news; or they can emerge from the darker Web, feeding conspiracy theories like Pizzagate. Fact checking is essential for readers of these stories, using all of the above best practices.

Now how could I put all of this into a one-shot? In addition to my online research, I talked through my (somewhat stream of consciousness) thoughts with the other members of the library instruction team, who provided strong feedback and guidance. I collaborated with my colleague, Alyssa Archer, who brought her experience with critical pedagogy to the final lesson plan.  All that was left for us to try teaching it! I’m pleased to share that Alyssa and I taught the class multiple times in the fall, and have shared the resulting lesson plan, Evaluating news sites: Credible or clickbait? on Project CORA. We weren’t able to include all of the tips, but we continue to discuss how to incorporate them in future workshops.

I feel like the “fake news” phenomena is one that just keeps morphing and growing. I could probably write a whole lot more about this but I’m more interested in hearing what you think. How do you think information literacy can counteract the post-fact narratives- if it can at all? What tools and techniques do you recommend?

Library (and Library-relevant) Events and the Inauguration

The U.S. Presidential Inauguration is scheduled for tomorrow, and many organizations have planned programming, displays, and other ways to engage their communities in conversations around issues raised since the election and during the transition. At my college and university we’re still in our winter intersession — our Spring semester doesn’t begin until the end of the month — and we don’t have any events planned at my library, though I’m enjoying the Post-election Resource Guide zine that my CUNY colleagues at Hunter College Library put together. I found myself wondering what academic (and other) library folks are up to this week, and after a bit of research found a few library and library-adjacent events I thought I’d share.

While not specifically happening in academic libraries, the Writer’s Resist event last Saturday January 15th at the iconic 42nd street location of the New York Public Library felt near and dear to my librarian and academic heart. Sponsored by PEN America, a literary and human rights organization, this literary rally featured readings by prominent writers and a pledge by PEN members and participants to defend the First Amendment. There are terrific photos on Twitter — including gorgeous signage featuring author portraits and quotes — under the hashtag #LouderTogether. And closer to my college in Brooklyn, the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library held a Pre-Inaguration Weekend Sign-Making Workshop last night. Brooklynites (and other local folks) of all political persuasions were invited to come to the library to use art supplies and button makers to exercise our First Amendment rights to free expression.

Many academic librarians are already back to the new semester this week and are planning programming in conjunction with inauguration-related events at their colleges or universities. At American University in Washington, D.C., Communication Librarian Derrick Jefferson participated yesterday in Teach, Organize, Engage: A Forum on Contemporary Politics and the Future. This full-day teach-in at the university was jointly sponsored by AU’s student, faculty, and staff governance bodies, and featured presentations about getting to the current moment in the U.S. as well as other domestic and international issues. The session Derrick presented — “Fact Checking and Communication in the ‘Post-Truth’ Era” — sounds like it was a great example of the critical information literacy expertise that academic librarians can bring to these conversations on campus, both formal and informal.

I also heard from John Jackson, Outreach & Communications Librarian, and Marie Kennedy, Serials and Electronic Resources Librarian, at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles about a half-day teach-in at their campus on Friday, the day of the inauguration. The LMU teach-in starts with a viewing of the inauguration and then breaks out into various smaller sessions, during which librarians will offer four sessions of a workshop on critically analyzing news sources called “Keepin’ It Real: Tips & Strategies for Evaluating Fake News.” The workshop will cover misleading news sources like misinformation, disinformation, click-bait, and propaganda, among others. I think holding this workshop right after the inauguration will provide students with a great opportunity to discuss any questions they have about speeches and media from the inauguration while it’s still fresh in their minds.

Is your library doing any programming or displays for the inauguration this week, or continuing to discuss the transition to the new administration in the future? Let us know in the comments.

A Reference Redo

Our reference desk is in an odd spot. Rather than describe the situation, I created the following hasty floor plan:

floorplan drawing of the SMCM Library's reference desk and circulation desk

When students enter the library they don’t see an actual person until they are well past the stairs to the second floor. The circulation desk dwarfs the reference desk, and the reference desk is obscured by a giant statue of a naked discus thrower. We’ve cut down on our reference desk hours due to staffing challenges, and historically reference shifts have been lower on the priority list for our librarians (falling behind teaching classes, college service work, and meetings). This has left us all feeling generally dissatisfied about our traditional reference set up. Stats are down (not surprisingly), students tend to go to the circulation desk first, some bypass circ and reference all together and just come straight to our offices for help (which are just around the corner from the reference desk), and reference shifts are inconsistently covered. The librarians have a good rapport with students and faculty, and hold multiple reference appointments (some scheduled, some impromptu) with both groups throughout the academic year, but they tend to happen in our offices rather than at the reference desk.

Instead of continuing on with business as usual, our library director gathered us together to discuss reference services at our library. It was an informal meeting, but I thought her discussion questions did a great job at getting to the core of why we provide reference services, what reference means to each of us, and how we could potentially be doing it differently. Here are the questions that guided our sharing:

  1. What is the purpose of reference services in the library?
  2. What are your frustrations with reference services? With the reference desk?
  3. If consultations with individual librarians are more popular, would an “office hour” or “by appointment” model work?
  4. What are our users’ requirements for research help?
  5. If the reference desk went away today, what would students do? What would faculty do? What would librarians do? 
  6. How can we improve reference? Can we?

The discussion was extremely productive, in large part because of the leading question: What is the purpose of reference? I would imagine that the answer would vary depending on the library and school, as we all serve unique populations. For our library reference service is about education, collaboration, listening, and sharing. There is (and will always be, I think) a transactional aspect to reference; students will always need help printing, finding their way to the stacks, or assistance with the new scanner. But reference presents a unique opportunity for librarians to build meaningful relationships with students. I get to know students much better one-on-one, while listening to their tales of research woe or triumph, than I do in the classroom. Sometimes a reference appointment isn’t even about locating information. I’ve met with students who just need to talk out an idea with someone who isn’t their instructor or research advisor. Reference services are a highly relational activity, but the model of reference we’ve been operating under until this point is a very transactional one.

One model I’ve been intrigued by recently is the notion recreating the reference desk into a  “beta space.” In the In the Library with the Lead Pipe article, Beta Spaces as a Model for Recontextualizing Reference Services in Libraries, Madelynn Dickerson proposes a beta space model for reference services that would replace a traditional reference desk/area with a collaborative research space. According to Dickerson, a “beta space is a prototyping space, but one that focuses more on ideas than technology.” It’s like a research incubator in the heart of the library. In this space  students and faculty could gather to work on research projects together, student work could be shared and displayed, and librarians could collaborate with students and faculty, offering one-on-one or small group research assistance. It’s essentially a learning and sharing lab that sits in a public space. What I love most about Dickerson’s idea is the openness and inclusivity it brings to reference services.  By creating a space that is warm and comfortable we’re setting the stage for collaboration rather than consultations or transactions. We’re saying, “Come in and stay a while.” Here’s a rough sketch of what this might look like:

Example drawing of a beta reference space

An artist and interior designer I am clearly not, but I think this gets the idea across. The space is built for discussion and collaboration. Where does the librarian sit, you might ask? My question would be: Does it matter? I ask that in all sincerity. Do we need to be at a desk with an air of place/authority, or can we float around a larger space instead? I like the idea of being visible, accessible, and sitting in a comfy sofa chair with a cup of coffee and my laptop, ready to dig into a complex research question with a student during an “office hour” or some equivalent to that in this space. I could see myself meeting with a professor’s undergraduate research group in the private collaboration space, going over the intricacies of their literature review strategy. I envision a lunchtime reception showcasing research from an environmental studies class project. I could also see a group of dedicated library peer mentors who could staff this space and provide much needed research help on evenings and weekends when librarians are unavailable.

As we begin the spring semester (tomorrow!) we’re going to study our reference services more closely, review alternative models to “the desk,” and talk to our students and faculty about how they prefer to gain assistance for their research. Of course I’d love to hear what model of reference you’ve adopted at your library in recent years.

Second Semesters: Meeting Expectations and Setting Goals

Classes started this week. Utah State University  seems to go back to school earlier than other institutions I’ve been associated with, whether this is a truth or just a feeling based on my always busy and never resting natural state I can’t know. As you might recall from my first post on ACRLog,  I felt the pressure of freedom hanging over my head as I approached my first tenure meetings and class sessions. As I look back on the goals I set, I can’t help but be a little disappointed that I didn’t get the large projects I had planned finished or even near completed. Sometimes I set the bar too high, and sometimes other priorities took important parts of my time. While I stressed about what I could do in the time I had, I didn’t know what it was like to work in this environment despite my degree.

Going with the flow is difficult when you feel the need to justify your existence. When I started, there was an urgency, self-imposed, on hitting the ground running. Freedom, as well as a new job, breeds deflated self-worth and a need to prove myself. I was lucky to start with two fantastic new librarians, who, much like me, felt a need to contribute and change the world in that first month. Our worth was already ( probably) proved and our anxieties over changing the world probably caused us too many sleepless nights in the first semester.

I often read  that employers “made the right choice” when they chose you. I never really believed it when it came to me, and that is why I set outrageous goals for my first 6 months many of which were impossible.

Hope springs eternal, and while a new semester means new challenges from our students it means a second chance for planning and goal setting. The key thing I learned in my first semester is that there will always be a second semester. I’m setting goals and expectations to reflect that, here is what I learned:

  1. I learned about writing and research goals.

I came to Utah State with four years of graduate school behind me. That means 8 semesters of seminar classes, with article length sojourns into the deepest recesses of popular cultural memory and library sciences. I spent much of the summer attempting to fit the projects I worked on in classes into what I needed for my tenure dossier. Try to change the world of libraries with a paper on paranormal manifestations of Abraham Lincoln and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I struggled to come up with new topics, in part because I didn’t want to abandon these ideas and papers. I talked to mentors about following these strings to their natural conclusions, but it seemed like more of an outside hobby than a true tenure quality research portfolio. These were the projects I had and I felt desperate to have logs in the fire.

Putting these projects on the shelf was one of the best decisions I’ve made. There might be a day when I can work on them again, but by taking a single breath and looking around me I found colleagues who were open to sharing their ideas and building projects together. By letting the research come to me in my day-to-day library world I found myself producing better research, thinking better ideas, and learning about new approaches to my work than I ever would have had I focused on what I had previously done. Everyone in academic libraries is intellectually curious, and as such, the job sparks interest in new approaches and problems. When I calmed down, research projects hit me directly in the face through the natural course of my work.

  1. I learned about learning goals.

Many new librarians complain about their library schools; “ I didn’t take the right classes” or “I didn’t learn how to do this” are common refrains on both twitter and in the real world. Nothing in library school can prepare you for the specific things required in your new job in your first year. We all come with either theoretical approaches or with experiences from our grad schools. While I have drawn from my experiences as a graduate assistant and as a student (especially in metadata and digital preservation classes), the real library is different from the one we apprentice in.

This isn’t to say that this isn’t valuable, or that library school is not something that helped me get to where I am, but believing that it was the end-all be-all of libraries and that graduating from the top library school in the country meant that I didn’t have anything to learn was a mistake. I basically had to re-learn everything. Learning is an expected part of our jobs and being ok with not knowing all the answers or solutions is ok.

Each library has its own politics and policies that hinder and promote our lives as librarians. Library school teaches us about the ideal library (a mixture of Ranganathan and Borges), but the library we work in, far from ideal, is the one we have to navigate. No class can teach you about what Utah State University Libraries needs today or tomorrow. But the people I work with are more than willing to welcome me into this world. I learned on the job, and I’m still learning on the job.

  1. There’s always room for saying no.

I came to Utah by myself and decided, socially at least, to say yes to everything. I’m an introvert and an only child as a result I like to be alone and by myself. But…I’ve been to Pioneer Day Parades, Porch Crawls, I’ve watched fireworks with families, I’ve hiked several mountain passes, I’ve driven to the lake 45 minutes away ( I don’t swim). I didn’t make a whole lot of friends in graduate school and I knew that this time needed to be different. Saying yes to everything worked socially, but I found very quickly that it didn’t work so well at work.

Along with my struggles to prove myself I wanted to be a “team player” and take whatever share of the load that was offered to me. I ignored warnings of burnouts and back aches as I took all that I could. Somewhat legendarily I took 7 freshmen orientation sessions this Fall (everyone else did no more than 3 and even that was a lot). You need someone on Saturday to give tours? I’ll be there. You need a desk shift covered? I got it.

I don’t’ regret doing these things, and I don’t think it was detrimental to my mental or physical health but saying no is as healthy as saying yes to social engagements. I learned that saying no today left a yes for tomorrow. My colleagues set boundaries for themselves primarily because our time is limited. Doing a dozen things half way isn’t helping anyone. Along with the research goals, there is always another day, week, or month to accomplish tasks. I don’t advocate putting important tasks off, but I truly believe that pacing myself is going to lead to more gains and more triumphs tomorrow than losing sleep tonight.

I’ll be the first to admit that I barely take this advice or have learned completely from these moments.  But second semesters are opportunities to start again and start fresh. I have a mountain of tasks ahead of me, classes to teach, and papers to present. I’m more comfortable today with the job ahead. All it took was time and another go around.

Meta Top Ten: An Infinitely Regressive New Year to You!

infinitergression_fractal_stuartpilbrow_flickr
stuartpilbrow CC BY-SA 2.0

One of my favorite things to do as a kid while my mother practiced the organ was play in the church’s bridal suite.  It had this closet of two large mirrored doors opening to a floor-to-ceiling mirror.  I’d close the mirrors on my leg or arm, slide around in there and watch my appendages travel into infinity.  As a librarian this has always been my go-to symbol of all things meta —  metadata and (my favorite) the you-don’t-know-what-you-don’t-know problem.  Answering the New Year’s call for reflection, I thought I’d put a meta twist on the top ten themes from my 2016 and some 2017 resolutions in response to the same.

10. Death – The 10 Best and Worst things to say to someone in grief

It feels like 2016 brought a lot of death.  Maybe I’m just becoming more aware of it as I age. Then again, the first of the year marks the death anniversary of a dear friend and my first experience of losing someone very close to me.  So, loss and grief have since then been particularly acute themes this time of year.  In 2016, I experienced death in my professional life as well. Navigating this brought to mind the list above and an American Libraries article on death cafes in libraries. Knowing firsthand the physical effect of stress on one’s health, and the reverse benefits of de-stressing, death can be a brutal reminder of the stakes involved.  So, I’ve resolved to relearn and practice coping skills for anxiety and stress at work this coming year.

9. Happiness 15 Things Incredibly Happy People Do

I first learned some of this list’s tips during my involvement in organizational and staff development work at my institution — #1 through Brene Brown’s vulnerability research and #3 through mindfulness.  I have since put many more to use during stresses like the tenure review process and reorganizations.  One of my 2016 resolutions was to do more perfectly reasonable travel (#4 on this list), which I did to two neighboring states this year. Less reasonably, I was even able to get all the way to Hawaii!  In 2017 my focus will be going offline, building relationships, and taking more chances, all helping me with meta list items 5, 3, and 2 below.

8. Reduce Stress De-Stress at Your Desk

After a back injury two years ago, I’ve made fits and starts at keeping up an exercise practice.  The stretches my chiropractor recommended were a lot like these, but not nearly as fashionable or fun.  This year I finally have a morning yoga routine down, and hope to kick it up a notch in 2017 by adding these moves back in during the day.

7.  Time Management How to Design Your Time Rather…

One of the professional colleagues who passed this year, Shane Lopez, was the author of Making Hope Happen.  His work is one among many built upon positivity research.  Similarly, this 5-minute read from Fast Company gives a positive strengths-based approach to time management.  But you should really check out the time research of Dawna Ballard who was the 2016 ER&L conference opening keynote speaker.

6. The Election Behind the Lens: 2016 in Photographs

The presidential election was certainly was a significant marker of 2016, and the issue of fake news cycles signaled renewed attention to digital information literacy for libraries.  White House photographer, Pete Souza, reflects on the Obama presidency in one of my favorite list mediums, a photo series.  And to healthy resolutions (laughter being the best medicine), I’ll just leave this bonus list right here.

5. TechnologyHere’s What Happens to Tech in 2017 (Unless 2016 Was All a Dream)

The election cycle had me enmeshed in social media, leading me to consider some serious de-teching resolutions in 2017. So far that’s meant removing Facebook from my phone and an online password management overhaul.  The former took two seconds, the latter the better part of an entire day.  This year also brought a number of new technologies to my work — VoIP phones, among others.  WIRED magazine is great for keeping up to date on such things, even if it does sometimes cause me existential dread.

4. DESJ Recommended Readings in Critical Librarianship

My university welcomed both a new dean of libraries and a new provost in 2016.  Both have shared a strong commitment to action on issues of diversity, equity, and social justice (DESJ).  My 2016 reading, limited as it was, occurred mostly in this vein.  Since exploring this in my first ACRLog post, I’ve been learning about the use of gender pronouns, my own biases, and microagressions.  My resolution in the new year is to facilitate conversations about how these issue play out beyond the service desk in our daily work.

3. More Reading and WritingThe Greatest Books of All Time, As Voted by 125 Famous Authors

Feeding my recurring resolution to read more, here’s another recommended reading list by one of my favorite sources. In 2016 I took to writing about the changes in my work for traditional publishing venues.  But joining the team of bloggers ACRLog in 2016 has been an amazing opportunity to learn from other academic librarians and (hopefully) become a better and more habitual writer in my profession.  Still a newbie, I confess that each post so far has been met with part inspired anticipation and part crippling anxiety.  I know reading and writing more are the surest ways to improve each skill.  Surely with such practice (and above lists 9, 8, 7) the intensity of it all will ease.

2. Ask for help5 Ways to Get Better at Asking for Help

I also know the benefits of asking for help.  Unfortunately this is also the hardest for me to put into to practice, so much so I considered leaving it off the meta list altogether!  Interestingly, these suggestions for improving that ask mirror some approaches I’d like to take in my research this year.  Ultimately, I want to take what the reference interview did for patrons asking librarians for research help at the desk and apply it in other, different kinds of information needs in the library.  How do patrons ask for help differently when troubleshooting access to digital resources?  How do we ask help of our colleagues when needing their assistance to change workflow? How do we ask for help when power dynamics change from patron and librarian to staff and supervisor?  A big resolution will be getting this research question out there (no, really, this time) and asking for help.

1. Cats The most popular cats on YouTube

Really nothing at all to do with the old or new year, but what library meta list would be complete without cats?

Do you have another list, resource, or comment to add on these themes?  Please share!