In the last several weeks I have heard more and more often about how people are living in “information bubbles.” As a librarian, this concerns me. One of my chief missions is to make high-quality information sources available so students can engage in critical thought bolstered by the best information.
I’m not casting blame: I’ll admit that a few months ago I was getting most of my news through my Facebook feed. But I just got tired of it, so I paid for a subscription to a national newspaper and got more deliberate about reading the weekly magazine I’ve been subscribing to for the last 25 years.
I was struck by the time and effort it takes to stay informed. I think it’s funny how in an age when such an overwhelming amount of information is available we need to make more of a concerted effort to seek out and engage with it, because it’s so easy to only see what shows up in our social media feeds. “Facebook is hosting a huge portion of the political conversation in America,” according to an August article in the New York Times Magazine. 61% of respondents to a 2014 survey of 18-33 year olds said they get news about politics from Facebook. My guess is that number would be higher now. And a lot of what we see there is not quality, fact-based journalism but opinion, conjecture, and outright garbage, making it like the carnival claw game in some ways – fishing around the limited options (much of which is junk), you win whatever’s accessible at the moment, if you win at all.
Like most people, I immerse myself in information from a wide variety of sources of with a wide range of credibility and authority. Some of my choices are clearly based on how easy they are to get to (Wikipedia) and how entertaining I find them (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver). Others are based on my desire for depth, nuance and realism (books and newspapers). There’s nothing wrong with this approach to getting information – what becomes key is how you a) supplement the most accessible and entertaining information, b) evaluate how each source balances bias and authority, and c) sort opinion from fact. Even legitimate and very factual news sources are filled with instances of opinion: cable news has pundits and commentators, and newspapers have editorials and letters. So you must always be an active participant in the evaluation of your own consumption of media. My favorite guide to how to do this comes from the totally non-authoritative site Cracked.com, but you may have also seen Matt Masur’s more recent piece in the Huffington Post, “Bernie Sanders Could Replace President Trump With Little-Known Loophole,” which is NOT about what the title claims at all.
There are untrustworthy sites that sow misinformation on both the right and the left (the Wall Street Journal’s Blue Feed, Red Feed compellingly demonstrates this) and, fortunately, both Google and Facebook recently announced plans to address this. If you aren’t sure about something, there are plenty of ways to check it out. When my mom posted this picture to her Facebook account, I turned to snopes.com for a quick fact check. Snopes also has a list of fake news sites, several people have shared this similar Google docs list with me, and FakeNewsWatch.com categorizes sites into fake/hoax news, satire, and clickbait. This is how my colleague Vera proved to me that an old lady in Waco, TX did not actually make coats out of the neighborhood cats’ fur. Thanks, Vera.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning website Politifact is a project of affiliated print newspapers. Journalists fact-check claims made by politicians, public figures and the media and contextualize them. Its associated project PunditFact does the same for members of the media, including columnists, pundits and talk show hosts. You can look at results by person and network, but there aren’t huge numbers of statements in the PunditFact project.
So which news sources should you trust? Pew Center research shows that there is definitely an ideological divide, but many mainstream media outlets are “more trusted than distrusted.” These include the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. Each of these has ethical guidelines you can read on the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) website (look for USA Today under “Gannett”). These include principles like “Seek Truth,” “Minimize Harm,” and “Be Accountable.” As a member of a profession with its own code of ethics that my colleagues and I take very seriously, the proclamation of these values is something I find reassuring.
Students can get free subscriptions to the Washington Post using their .edu email address, so there is no excuse not to check out this “more trusted” source of news. Students can subscribe to the digital New York Times for $1 a week and the Wall Street Journal for $49 a year, which is a lot of money for a student but could be a reasonable cost for a gift.
All of these titles are also available in the library databases ProQuest Newsstand and Factiva, though I know it can be cumbersome to link to them there. Most papers let anyone read up to a certain number of articles for free each month, and after you reach your limit you can log in to ProQuest Newsstand and search for the article you want to read. Another option for getting to these titles is to log in to Factiva and then choose “News Pages” at the top. It will take you to a page displaying the front page headlines for 10 international newspapers.
You can also access news and opinion in the highly-regarded publications Science, Nature, and the Chronicle of Higher Education through the library’s subscriptions. I encourage everyone to install our browser bookmarklet JournalPass, which will let you log in to access these publications (and many more) when you are off campus. (Unfortunately this method will not work for major newspapers because our online access to those does not come directly from the newspaper’s website.)
So give it a try. Up your information game. Learn how to tune out the clickbait and start reading the mainstream sources you may have left behind. Why should you listen to me? Because I’m a librarian, and libraries are still one of the most trusted institutions in the United States. You can trust me.
(this post was written by Amy Fry, and you can reach me at afry (at) bgsu.edu)