“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.