10 Tips to Promote News Literacy
by Suzanne LaPierre
The ability of citizens to distinguish news from opinion and propaganda is integral to an informed vote—thus, to the existence of a healthy democracy. But alarming trends brought to light during the 2016 presidential election—such as increased polarization and foreign influence on U.S. elections—appear only to have intensified. Beyond basic services (curating and providing access to reliable information from a variety of reputable sources), what more can libraries do to contribute to news literacy in their communities? Chances are, if it can be done, librarians somewhere have tried it. Below are 10 things library professionals can do—and are doing now—to help members of their communities become more discerning users of news in an increasingly confusing information landscape.
|As the 2020 U.S. presidential election looms, is hindsight 20/20 when it comes to news literacy? What have we learned as information professionals, and how can we implement it to better serve the public?
1. Remember the principle of least effort. According to the principle of least effort, humans—and even machines and animals—naturally gravitate toward the path of least resistance (Zipf 1949). Studies have shown that when it comes to information-seeking behavior, humans tend to accept less accurate or incomplete information if it is easier to obtain than information that is more authoritative but harder to access (Liu and Yang 2004). Therefore, support for news literacy entails making verified information as easily accessible as possible. Purveyors of propaganda and disinformation intentionally spread free content, whereas professionally vetted information (such as that found in academic journals) often exists behind a paywall or requires multiple login screens and passwords to access. Many libraries are supporting open access to research to remove some of the barriers. In 2019, the University of California (UC) terminated subscriptions with Elsevier, stating its goal was to secure universal OA to UC research while containing escalating costs (UC 2019). Meanwhile, UC Libraries pledged to support alternative means of access to research needed by faculty and students (UC–Los Angeles Library 2019). Libraries can help support OA research by educating the public, engaging with stakeholders, and including OA sources in information guides. See ALA’s Open Access Toolkit for more information (ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/iftoolkits/litoolkit/openaccess).
2. Learn from history. Evaluating content of archival material such as historic newspaper articles removes the act of discerning news bias from the hotbed of current politics. History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust is an initiative of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., that encourages participants to examine newspapers from their hometowns to see how events leading up to the Holocaust were covered in local news (newspapers.ushmm.org/about/project). Volunteers are invited to submit articles they find to a national database. The participatory nature of this project makes the topic more personal and engaging, while promoting the value of primary sources. The program may be utilized by local history archives to serve as a springboard for exploring news literacy issues while providing training in the use of databases and print resources. Similar programs may be tailored around other historic themes and events. Research has indicated that people are more likely to trust information when they have had a hand in discovering and sharing it (Gibson and Jacobson 2018).
3. Teach tech literacy beyond how-to’s. The ability to fully participate in all aspects of contemporary society necessitates keeping up with technology. As new technologies emerge, many citizens rely on their public library to learn how to navigate them. However, when it comes to the internet, a little information can be more dangerous than none at all. This is evident when internet novices discover Google and Facebook, only to fall for online scams or divulge too much personal information in public forums. Users need to be savvy about the architecture of the internet, such as how algorithms and filter bubbles impact what is seen and which news stories rise to the top of one’s feed. To be more helpful, educational entities such as libraries need to go beyond teaching the how-to’s of getting online, creating an email account, and exploring social media. Many libraries are teaching basic online security, such as how to use privacy features and what happens to user information on various platforms. Others are offering programs and resources designed to further awareness of algorithms and filter bubbles, such as the libguides of Pratt Institute (prattlis.libguides.com/c.php?g=874561&p=6323729) and Portland State University Library (guides.library.pdx.edu/c.php?g=625347&p=4359727).
4. Reach all ages. We often remark about what we need to teach kids—and, sure, we do. School and academic libraries have been leading the way on information literacy, designing lesson plans to develop students’ critical thinking skills. Age-based lesson plans for students and professional development opportunities for educators are available free online via the Digital Resource Center at the Center for News Literacy (digitalresource.center/splashpage) and the News Literacy Project (newslit.org/educators). However, research indicates older citizens may be even more vulnerable to misinformation. A recent Pew Research Center study revealed that adults older than 50 had more trouble discerning fact from opinion on an electronic survey than younger people (Gottfried and Grieco 2018). Public libraries are a critical resource for older adults who might not have access to academic resources. Retired people are often avid library users and supporters, and adults older than 65 are the most reliable voting bloc, according to recent census data. But some seniors have health or mobility issues that can impede them from visiting the library, and the digital divide can impact their access to online resources. Consider outreach to senior centers and assisted-living facilities, and remember older adults when planning educational programs. For example, many retired adults prefer to attend discussion groups and programs during daylight hours.
5. Capitalize on trending topics. Drive interest in programming and basic library services by tapping into topics that are generating buzz in news and popular culture. Trending topics have been linked to higher program attendance and interest from customers, according to my recent survey of public library staffers around the country (LaPierre and Kitzie 2018). For example, while fake news is getting stale as a headline, the topic of deepfakes is fresher and may serve as a gateway for providing information about media literacy and critical thinking. The speakers’ bureau of a local university can be a source of experts with knowledge in current technologies and trends who are willing to present at public venues. There are also free online sources to help teach these concepts, such as those offered by KQED Teach (teach.kqed.org/misinformation-course-collection).
6. Draw me a picture—use infographics. A picture is worth a thousand words. A lot of information can be encapsulated in an image. Infographics, data visualization charts, and even memes distill information into more digestible, eye-catching visuals. These visual forms of information are accelerating in popularity as attention spans shrink in response to the speed of technology. Liking and sharing a visual on social media takes a fraction of a second, and information spreads farther and faster than ever. Imagery can heighten appeals to emotion often used in propaganda (Facing History and Ourselves 2020). However, the power of imagery can also be harnessed in the service of information literacy. Librarians can transfer valuable information and news literacy tips in the form of appealing, easily shared infographics (Ireland 2018). Digital resources (such as easel.ly and piktochart.com) make it easy to create free data-driven visuals that can be shared digitally on library social media or printed as bookmarks or posters.
7. Partner up. The value of forming partnerships cannot be overstated. Partnerships expand audiences and tap into knowledge from outside entities, allowing both the library and the partner organization to share expertise and resources and reach more segments of society. Library partners can include news outlets, universities, schools, technology companies, local businesses, and nonprofit organizations. A partnership of the Fairfax County Public Library in Virginia and George Mason University’s School of Conflict Resolution won the 2019 Gordon M. Conable Award for commitment to intellectual freedom for launching a series of workshops designed to develop more productive dialogue around news topics. The Arizona State Library partnered with Arizona Humanities to offer FRANK Talks, an ongoing series of discussions on important issues (azhumanities.org/programs/frank-talks). More examples of successful partnerships in support of media literacy can be found in ALA’s “Media Literacy @ Your Library Learning and Prototyping Report” (2018).
8. Can we talk? The public library is uniquely positioned as a meeting point for people from all walks of life, one in which those who might not normally encounter one another come face to face. Polarization and tribalism have been identified as key obstacles to the development of news literacy (McIntyre 2018), so events that simply bring together people from disparate elements of the community are valuable unifiers. Some programs that are deliberately designed to grow understanding of differences include meet-your-neighbor events, such as Meet Your Muslim Neighbors (ala.org/aboutala/libraries-safer-spaces-meet-your-muslim-neighbors) and the Human Library program (humanlibrary.org). Facilitating discussion groups within the community is another way to promote more open dialogue and bridge divides. Some resources for starting discussion groups include Great Decisions (fpa.org/great_decisions), Conversation Cafe (conversationcafe.org), and ALA’s Let’s Talk About It program (ala.org/tools/programming/ltai).
9. Let us entertain you. While discussion groups can be beneficial, prior research suggests that the self-selecting nature of programs is a concern among library staff, some of whom feel that attendees of such programs are already likely to be more open-minded and knowledgeable (LaPierre and Kitzie 2018). How can libraries reach those who are less likely to seek out such resources? This brings us to the value of entertainment. Family-friendly and foodie library events are almost always well-attended. While skeptics may question the relevance of fun programs, such events often bring in segments of the community who aren’t regular library users. Family events may be more welcoming to community members from diverse language and cultural backgrounds or those who assume libraries are only for avid readers. Getting people in the door is the first step to showing them what libraries have to offer, including literacy initiatives and information resources. Studies have shown that fact-denial may be less an information deficit than a psychological phenomenon and that developing trust is a critical component in conveying information effectively (Cooke 2017, Jacobson and Mackey 2013, and Lor 2018).
10. Advocate for staff time and training. My survey data on public libraries’ media literacy initiatives found that lack of staff time was the primary reason cited by library staff members for not pursuing such initiatives (LaPierre and Kitzie 2019). Harkening back to the principle of least effort, approaching news literacy activities in a manner that maximizes effectiveness while minimizing staff time investment is wise. Further research indicates that educating library staffers on media literacy issues is as important as educating the public (ALA 2019) and that there seems to be a relationship between staff interest in the topic and perceived interest on the part of the public (LaPierre and Kitzie 2019). Support for adequate staffing levels and quality training is elemental to advocating for the profession of librarianship itself, a profession that, in turn, supports core values that are essential to a democratic society in which all citizens are empowered to be literate and informed participants (ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/corevalues).
There is no easy solution to the problem of news literacy in the U.S. or elsewhere. Creating a more news-literate society entails an ongoing process of understanding human nature and developing learning and communication techniques while constantly adjusting to changes in technology and culture. While the explosion of misinformation may be beyond containment, improved news literacy in our communities may enable a tipping point of understanding on consequential issues. Libraries are a vital part of that hope and possibility.
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