I have a tendency to gush about studies coming from Project Information Literacy. Alison Head and her research partners have produced the most rigorous wide-angle lens on the very thing I’ve been puzzling over for my entire career: how students approach research and how libraries can support their learning. Studies about how students use information abound, but none have the methodological sophistication or breadth as the studies PIL has produced in the past decade, covering everything from the transition to college to what happens after graduation.
There’s a new study just released with a timely focus – how college students engage with news. (Full disclosure: in August I was invited to an interdisciplinary gathering to discuss early findings of this study, something I wrote about here. I even get a paragraph of my own in the report.) This is the missing piece that has been on my mind the most in recent years. Do the kinds of inquiry we ask students to do for courses transfer to other situations? Can students make sense of information they encounter out of class? Does what we do to help students become information literate actually matter beyond graduation?
As in previous studies, the scale is pretty epic. Nearly 6,000 students were surveyed at eleven institutions. Pre-survey focus groups, open-ended responses and telephone interviews added additional insights. Finally, over 700 Twitter feeds of students who volunteered their handles were analyzed and compared to an existing panel of over 100,000 college age Twitter users. It’s no wonder few librarian-researchers can approach the scope of these studies – it’s a huge undertaking.
The good news is students are not indifferent to news, nor are they gullible. Only 8 percent said they don’t follow news at all, one explaining it seemed a distraction from academics. This was encouraging. I’ve informally polled students about their news habits for years, and their interest seems higher now than it was a decade or two ago, perhaps because information of all kinds is so much more ubiquitous than it was before social media and YouTube, perhaps because students feel more affected by events now than in calmer times. Students get news through their friends and from faculty as well as from multiple sources, mostly online.
A large majority of students believe journalism is essential to democracy, and most feel they have a civic responsibility to be informed, but nearly half feel journalists inject bias into their stories. Perhaps that skepticism is exacerbated because news comes through multiple channels that have different incentives. Ad placement is an important revenue source for traditional news organizations, but it’s not their purpose. Targeted advertising is Facebook’s business, and these survey respondents are more likely to see news on Facebook or other social media channels than on news organizations’ own sites. (Getting news through social media is something people of all ages do.) Students seem to be aware that the attention economy has influenced the way news is presented. Consternation about “fake news," whether it’s politically-motivated fabrications, hyped-up clickbait, or the president’s insistence that entire news organizations are fake, has likely contributed to wariness. Interestingly, many students reported “reading laterally” – checking multiple sources and looking for quality news organizations' reporting when they want to understand an issue. And contrary to stereotype, they don’t unthinkingly share news without checking its validity. Their reputations are on the line when they recommend a story to their friends.
The study’s authors have several recommendations, including insights for news organizations and social media companies. Of particular interest to librarians and faculty in the disciplines are the first three: give students practice sorting through and making sense of information in multiple formats, discuss current events in the classroom to model engagement and critical understanding of news, and develop better methods for teaching the evaluation of information. Given students think news is important and, like most of us, they are daunted by the amount and variability of it, this is an opportunity to increase their information literacy.
This means we need to retool our own skills and strategies. It’s not enough to expose students to scholarly sources and disciplinary conversations. We have to build connections between how we determine validity in scholarly conversations and how we make sense of today’s news. If we’re at all serious about information literacy and developing students’ ability to engage with the world, this is work we need to do. And now have data from our most informative research project to help us fold it into our instructional goals.