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.

7 thoughts on “Attempting to complicate students’ news consumption”

  1. This is an excellent piece. Who wrote it? Especially helpful is the articulation about why news consumption bias occurs and the resources for helping students learn about the issues related to news consumption in an increasingly polarized media world.

  2. A colleague and I grappled with this question from a global perspective and created a tutorial that others might find useful. It’s no longer being updated but still is still available in here and I’d be thrilled to see others build on it if it is useful to you:

    We also published about it if the backstory is useful:

    * Schmitz, D. M., & Hinchliffe, L. J. Global news VILLAGE: A case study explication of targeted tutorial development. Research Strategies, 20, 162-170. (paywalled – sorry)
    * Hinchliffe, L. J., & Schmitz, D. (2006). Digital news: Key to global literacy and information literacy education. In H. Walravens (Ed.), Newspapers of the World Online: U.S. and International Perspectives: Proceedings of Conferences in Salt Lake City and Seoul (pp. 191-203). München: Saur. Conference paper version:

  3. I reflect on this often as an information practitioner who works with journalists in training. My ACRL/EBSS colleagues and I drafted info lit standards for j-students and practioners:

    Here a few resources from my experience at work and with ALA:

    Diversifying News
    At Ithaca College, we have the Park Center for Independent Media: Jeff Cohen, the Director, founded FAIR: There is an Izzy Award (named after I.F. Stone) and even an I.F. Stone Hall of Fame. Our journalism students are particularly aware of myriad press types and compare coverage: local, national, global, ethnic, gender, progressive, political, sports, etc.

    Diversifying News
    SRRT used to have an Alternative Media Task Force. When it dissolved I created an Alternative Media Community in ALA Connect: The AMTF referred to the Library Bill of Rights: as well as a 2007 report on Fostering Media Diversity: I agree with the post’s emphasis on information diversity. The best written stories are information rich:

    Why Does News Matter?
    Nancy Kranich has looked at the partnerships between libraries and journalists for civic engagement: ; I believe she brought Francher to campus to discuss his report on Re-Imagining Journalism: The Knight Commission has a report as well: See also the State of the News Media by Pew: and the FCC’s Information Needs of Communities Report

    Cultivating a Questioning Attitude:
    Regarding news and media literacy, I turn to NAMLE: and our own Project LookSharp: We collect most of MEF’s docs:

    This is a dear topic and there are so many sources!

  4. What a great project. I would highly recommend listening to the podcast On the Media, out of WNYC.
    Each weekly episode has a general theme or main story with other smaller stories. It really is a critique of the news coverage and of particular interest in their breaking news consumer handbook. All of their handbooks (migration, terrorism, etc) are available here:

    I’d love to hear more about how you approach this class and what you incorporate.

  5. Thank you, Susan, Lisa, Catherine, and Jennifer, for your suggestions and kind words. I really appreciate your time and thoughts!

  6. Jen, I am late to reading this post, but wanted to let you know that you raise some REALLY important issues. I’ve struggled with teaching/discussing news consumption with Political Science students and I so appreciate you sharing these resources and the ongoing collaborative project you have with this faculty member. I’m going to think hard about how to incorporate some of the questions you pose into the Intro to Politics classes I’ll be working with later this semester.

  7. Hi Jen,

    I was directed here by Veronica and also really appreciate this post. I especially like your inclusion of “Cultivating a Questioning Attitude.” I recently read Jessica Critten’s “Ideology and critical self-reflection in information literacy instruction” and am hoping to get better at encouraging this type of thoughtfulness and mediating discussions that encourage students to identify their own ideologies and predispositions.

    I will be returning to and forwarding this post!

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