Tag Archives: media literacy

Information in the Indignation Age

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Mark Lenker, Teaching & Learning Librarian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

As a librarian, I worry about the ways that emotion, especially anger, influences our interactions with information. So much of our political discourse is intended to arouse indignation, and I’m concerned about indignation’s impact on one’s ability to learn. Higher education needs to become more intentional about preparing students for inflammatory discourse as a potential hazard in the information landscape.

An important Pew study offers a lens for understanding the cyclical relationship between our media habits and the increasing political polarization of the United States. The short version is that media consumers spend more time with media that confirms their political outlook, and that ideological reinforcement makes one less receptive to dissenting views. The degree of outrage and distrust in our political discourse makes this dynamic quite unsettling. A quick perusal of the online comments following any major news story shows that media-driven ideological reinforcement is not leading to higher rates of polite disagreement – AkronKittyLuvver is out for blood.

A subsequent Pew study confirms the tension. Researchers found that Democrats and Republicans tend to associate negative character traits with members of the opposing party. A strong contingent of Democrats say that Republicans are more dishonest compared to other Americans. An even larger percentage of Republicans say that Democrats are more immoral than other Americans. Majorities of both Democrats and Republicans say that the other side is more closed-minded compared to other Americans. We are all-too-ready to make hostile judgments about those whose perspectives differ from our own. What does this self-righteous antagonism mean for our capacity to learn about complex and evolving issues?

Indignation in both the media and in personal communications is particularly worrisome because it signals to one’s audience that the matter at hand is so grave and so morally charged that there is no room for alternative perspectives. Attempts to present other points of view will be met with resistance or even hostility, so there is little point in sharing a different opinion (unless you take moral offense at the indignant person’s thinking, in which case you can vent your own sense of outrage).

But is indignation necessarily the enemy of open-mindedness and open discussion? In True to Our Feelings, philosopher Robert Solomon presents a more nuanced view of anger and indignation. According to Solomon, anger arises when we have been hurt or offended in some way, and it manifests itself as an impulse to level blame against the offender. While anger can operate on a strictly personal level (“his loud talking is distracting me and it’s making me mad”), indignation implies that the offense oversteps important considerations of justice and morality (“his loud talking in the quiet area of the library is rude and unfair”). The sense of transgression involved with indignation can make a difference in the level of vehemence with which indignation is felt or expressed. Indignation involves more than simply being offended – it is being offended and having justice on your side (or at least feeling that way).

Because indignation is wrapped up with one’s understanding of justice and morality, it is not the sort of emotion that one can get over easily. Moving past indignation may require a revised estimation of the line between justice and injustice, and that sort of reexamination is hard to undertake in today’s polarized environment. The indignant mind presents fertile ground for confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and other obstacles to learning.

But Solomon also points out that anger and indignation have their value. For one thing, the ability to experience and express these emotions is essential to maintaining our personal dignity, to stand up for ourselves or to stand against unfairness. As Solomon puts it, “[T]here are times when one is a fool not to get angry, not only because the situation calls for it but because otherwise one degrades oneself as less than a fully functioning human being.” Indignation puts energy and backbone behind our convictions.

Furthermore, for Solomon (and for Aristotle), anger is not inherently irrational. Instead, anger is rational when it fits the occasion, when it is directed at the right parties, and when it is proportional to the offense (neither an overreaction nor an underreaction). Forward-looking considerations are also crucial for assessing anger’s reasonableness. Solomon emphasizes the strategic qualities of emotions, especially their impact on how we relate with others. Does one’s style of anger fit with one’s long-term interests, or is it better to revise (or even abandon) one’s current strategy?

Considering indignation in this strategic light, I find a theoretical home for my worries. For example, indignation is irrational if its heat and hostility get in the way of negotiating to address the conditions that inspired indignation in the first place. Indignation is also irrational if it entrenches the indignant person in righteousness to such a degree that they cannot consider other points of view or continue to learn about the circumstances of the offending injustice (which, in the case of political disputes, are probably quite complicated).

Can indignation foster learning? A sense of outrage might lend urgency to one’s investigation of an injustice, driving one to learn more quickly or more deeply than an investigator without the same sense of passion. Amia Srinivasan points out that anger is part of really understanding oppression, a matter of viscerally apprehending the gulf between the way things are and the way they should be. A vital educational message for these polarized times is that learning is a crucial lens for reflecting on the reasonableness of one’s indignation.

Rational indignation cannot become so all-encompassing that it crowds out dispositions to learn. Indignation motivates learning when it is combined with intellectual courage (a willingness to face ugly situations squarely, without rationalizing them away or exaggerating their severity) and with epistemic humility (a clarity about the limits of one’s perspective and a consistent recognition that one can always learn more).

Media-inspired indignation is an information problem, a potential pitfall that higher education should help students prepare for by exploring a range of important questions:

  • How do partisan media, indignation, and intellectual autonomy relate to one another? Does media-inspired indignation stimulate or stifle curiosity about politics?
  • How does indignation over political matters define one’s relationships with one’s peers? With other groups?
  • When political leaders and campaigns use rhetoric to inspire indignation, how does that work to their advantage?
  • Is indignation worth the costs? Political discussions in the media typically address exceedingly complex conditions that impact vast, diverse groups of people. Given the uncertainty involved in policy making, when we weigh the likelihood of achieving a satisfying political resolution against the consequences of being angry at our neighbors, is the antagonism associated with indignation justifiable? If not, what attitudes are more appropriate?

To be clear, my concern is not ideological. If one’s beliefs place them in the far reaches of the ideological spectrum, that may be perfectly legitimate, as long as those beliefs stem from the careful, iterative consideration of the best evidence available. But when I look at the polarization data from Pew, I don’t think that’s what’s happening. I worry that indignation contributes to a cycle that drives us ever further from the ideal of informed political participation. Our students need to reflect on this dynamic – they need to demand better of their politicians, their news sources, and themselves.

(Though perhaps, not too indignantly.)

Attempting to complicate students’ news consumption

“Anyone who isn’t confused doesn’t really understand the situation.”  –Edward R. Murrow

This past semester, per usual, a faculty member who teaches political science at my institution asked her students to read and watch the news. My colleague incorporated, as she normally does, discussion of current events into class time. The presidential primaries and accompanying media circus in the spring proved especially engaging for the students. The resulting class discussions were often productive, raising important questions and issues about government and politics. Yet the discussions also sometimes revealed students’ challenges with news consumption. Students, for example, seemed to bring information and perspectives to class that were mostly confirmations of what they already thought. Students were usually quick to label partisanship, but otherwise often missed bias in the media. Students sometimes seemed unable to tease apart reporting versus commentary.

These behaviors and challenges are likely not a surprise to most educators, especially librarians. Nor are they unique to college students. Many of us grapple with news consumption ourselves. How could we not, in this age of information overload? We are swimming (or is it drowning?) in a sea of information. To keep our heads above water, we skim just the headlines, we visit the sites or apps we’re most accustomed to, we rely on the stories that turn up in our social media feeds. These practices might make the wide and deep information ocean more easily navigable, but limiting our exposure in these ways can strengthen our confirmation bias and subject us to further filter bubbles.

When a first-year student in my colleague’s class last semester asked her for suggestions on where to go to get news, it gave my colleague pause. Sure, some quick suggestions for selected websites or apps could help that student, and perhaps others, engage with current events. But the student’s question prompted my colleague to think more deeply about students’ news consumption behaviors overall. Where and how were students getting their news, she wondered? How did they approach the news they consumed? She informally surveyed students in her courses to get a sense of their habits and perspectives. When she reached out to me to ask if we might work together to help students engage with news on a more regular basis and in more critical ways, of course I said yes. Now we’re aiming to connect students to reputable news sources, but we’re equally if not more concerned with developing their practices and capacities as news consumers and critical thinkers.

I’ve been exploring a number of news literacy resources for inspiration. And there are, indeed, plenty of inspirational projects already: the Center for News Literacy, The News Literacy Project, Why News Matters, and News Literacy 2016, to name just a few. And there are guides aplenty with lists of links to diverse news databases and sites, plus checklists with criteria for evaluating sources for accuracy and authority. But my colleague and I want to focus more on the important questions that can help students reflect on and shape their behaviors and attitudes about accessing and consuming news. We’re trying to distill those complexities into a simple and accessible (read: short) resource guide. Some of the organizing prompts we’ve been brainstorming so far include:

  • Why does news matter? – An understanding of the role of news in society; Motivation to seek news
  • How does news work? – An understanding of how news systems operate and make money; An understanding of who makes decisions in how news is prioritized, reported, produced in different systems
  • Finding (and diversifying) news – Identifying and selecting news sources; Developing a news consumption habit by integrating news into existing media/device usage; The impact of personal news choices on the diversity of information and perspectives encountered
  • What does “bias” even mean? – An understanding of bias as more than liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican; An understanding that “every source is biased and subjective and be able to contextualize such biases”; Considering what information and perspectives are left out of news; Considering the impact of tone, style, language, etc. on audience perception of news; Considering how personal beliefs and experiences impact individual perception of news
  • Cultivating a questioning attitude – An understanding of confirmation bias; Checking for corroboration/verification; Practicing using the lens of news production systems’ and authors’ practices and motives to examine news sources (Ashley, Maksl, and Craft published some helpful prompts in their News Media Literacy scale.)

I imagine this is a topic near and dear to the hearts and minds of many ACRLog readers, so I’m eager to hear your take. What news literacy work have you been doing? What are your favorite examples of news literacy guides and resources? What do you think are the most important news literacy concepts, questions, and tools for students? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Experiencing the Shift

I spent a few days last week at a fascinating conference called MobilityShifts held at The New School in NYC (full disclosure: I was also a presenter). The tagline for the conference is An International Future of Learning Summit, which I definitely found true: attendees from all over the world ranged from faculty and administrators to publishers, students, activists, and librarians, and were interested in education at all levels. It would be impossible for me to do justice to all of the great talks and panels I experienced at the conference, but here are some notes on a few that piqued my interest that seemed especially relevant to academic librarians.

John Willinsky (founder of the Public Knowledge Project which created Open Journal Systems for publishing open access journals) gave a wonderful talk about open access publishing. He made the distinction between two kinds of intellectual property: content produced by scholars and researchers, and content produced by commercial and entertainment entities (with frequent use of Lady Gaga as an example of the latter). Willinsky asked us to consider why copyright for these two types of intellectual property is treated identically. He suggested that there is a strong historical and legal basis for open access in scholarly journals: information produced by universities is a public good, as demonstrated by the tax-exempt status of academic institutions. Further, the information that researchers produce only increases in value when it circulates and is critically reviewed, and open access increases the circulation of scholarly information. With Open Access Week practically around the corner, I’m looking forward to sharing what I learned at Willinsky’s talk during the faculty workshops we’re planning at my library.

I was very pleased to have the opportunity to hear Michael Wesch speak — I’ve been a big fan since seeing the video he made in 2007 with his undergraduate anthropology students at Kansas State University, A Vision of Students Today. Wesch focused his talk on student engagement, beginning by juxtaposing a photo of 400 bored-looking students in a lecture course with one of excited young people at auditions for American Idol. College students are seeking ways to create their own identities and find recognition, which the mainstream media are all too happy to provide. He noted that in the past media critics like Neil Postman criticized television for being a one-way medium, but now we have the ability to both create content and to talk back — it’s no longer just a top-down information stream. Wesch suggested that we encourage students to ask questions and talk back (both critical aspects of information literacy), and show them that these actions are relevant to creating their own identity and making meaning in their lives.

Like most conferences, the overwhelming majority of the speakers were faculty, administrators, and other professionals — that is, adults. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend a panel titled Open Education: A Student Perspective, and listen to the voices of four articulate students from The New School. Open access publishing was one dominant theme in this session. One student spoke passionately about the frustration that accompanied his inability to access scholarly information in databases when he had taken time off from his studies. Another wondered about the oxymoron of students who depend on piracy and copyright infringement to get materials that they need (or want), at the same time as the university has to take steps against it. The high prices charged by textbook publishers were also questioned, especially for materials for K-12 education. These students were an interesting counterpoint to the students Wesch discussed; they’re highly engaged in their own education, and curious about why educational policies and practices so often default to closed when arguably one of the purposes of higher education is to open and broaden knowledge and worldview.

The conference also featured “short talks,” 10 minute presentations grouped by theme. Among the many I heard, one from Xtine Burrough, Communication professor at Cal State Fullerton, stands out as particularly information literacy-friendly. She asks her students to remix and respond to the copyright infringement case Lenz v. Universal. In 2008 Stephanie Lenz was served with a takedown notice by Universal for posting a video to YouTube in which her then-toddler is shown dancing to a brief snippet of the Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy,” and decided to fight back (she’s being represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation). Burrough’s students create videos using the same 29 seconds of the song and upload them to YouTube as a response to Lenz’s original post. And of course even this assignment has gone viral, and there are many video responses from people who aren’t students in Burrough’s classes.

There are so many moving parts to the education ecosystem that it’s easy to stick to just the topics we know best or spend the most time thinking about. This was the first non-library conference I’ve been to in ages, and it was fascinating to step outside of my library bubble and listen to/learn from the other presenters and attendees. It’s going to take a while for me to digest everything I’ve taken in over the past few days, but I’m finding myself with lots to think on about the place of libraries in education.