Keeping Up With . . . Misinformation and News Literacy

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Melissa Laidman.

Melissa Laidman is a College Librarian at SUNY Erie Community College and a Reference Librarian at Hilbert College. Email: laidmanm@ecc.edu or mlaidman@hilbert.edu

It is difficult to go any amount of time without seeing inaccurate information shared online, and at times even in the news media. It is even more difficult to go without hearing the words “fake news”. As librarians, and information professionals, we are often called to find accurate and credible information, as well as teach our students how to identify accurate information online.

Not Just Fake News

The News Literacy Project cautions against the use of the term “fake news.” The term “once referred to misinformation designed to look like legitimate news, but the term has been rendered meaningless and counterproductive through overuse and political weaponization.” [1]

In a paper published by First Draft News, Claire Wardle identifies three types of information, falling under the umbrella of “Information Disorder.” Misinformation is false information, malinformation is factual information that is spread with the intent to cause harm, and disinformation is false information that is spread with malicious intent. There are seven types of Mis- and Dis- information, listed here from from lowest to highest potential for harm.

  • Satire or parody.
  • False connection – such as clickbait.
  • Misleading content - using information to intentionally frame something in a biased manner
  • False context – for example, a photo being miscaptioned as being at a different time or location.
  • Imposter content - created to look like it came from someone else, often a well-known person or news organization.
  • Manipulated content – such as photoshopped images or doctored videos
  • Fabricated content - completely false information is shared with the intent to deceive and cause harm. [2]

It is important that students differentiate between these types of mis- and dis-information. Avoiding the term “fake news” can also help to evade some of the emotionally charged reactions that can result from the idea.

Along these lines, it is important to distinguish the idea of bias, especially political bias in news media from the actual problem of misinformation. While news organizations make errors, and may have some level of “information disorder”, such as clickbait headlines with a political lean, or framing a story in a somewhat misleading manner, they must adhere to journalistic standards and codes of ethics. [3] They do not intentionally publish misinformation and make corrections when they do make errors. It is also important to note that news outlets regularly publish both “straight news” and “opinion” pieces, and simply because a news organization leans politically with their opinion pieces, this does not mean the news they report is false. Media bias charts such as the popular Ad Fontes Media Chart [4] are unnecessary and can be counterproductive.

Can Students Identify Misinformation?

Evidence from recent studies indicate that both high school students as well as undergraduates are largely unable to identify misinformation online. In these studies, students struggled with recognizing satire sites [5], identifying when a website is created by a lobbying or special interest group [6,7], distinguishing between ads and genuine news articles [8], recognizing imposter URLS, and understanding syndication [9].

Importantly, these results suggest traditional methods of information and source evaluation that librarians have taught, such as CRAAP and characteristics of scholarly sources, can often lead students astray. Students will evaluate things such as the top-level domain (.com vs .org), the website’s author or about section, or the appearance of the site, at face value. They do not dig deeper or consult other sources to find out who is really behind the site. [10] They fail to identify the authority of the author or publisher of a source accurately. They are often not able to determine the purpose or intent of an article. [11] If an article contains an abstract and references, they assume it is credible without considering the creator. [12]

Lateral Reading

In a recent study, professional fact checkers were the most successful at identifying misinformation and potential misinformation online because they used a skill called lateral reading. Instead of spending a large amount of time examining the website or article they were set to evaluate, they searched other places online for more information. They often searched for additional information the author or publisher of a website. They also use this to verify claims made by these sources. [13]

There has recently been a shift toward teaching students to think more like these fact-checkers, rather than have them evaluate sources through evaluation checklists such as CRAAP. Mike Caulfield is one of the main proponents of this method, with his open-access textbook “Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers, [14]”as well as his website Hapgood [15]. He suggests the use of “Four Moves”, that go by the acronym SIFT.

S: Stop. Stop and think. Be aware of your own emotional response and cognitive biases in response to the information. Also, consider what you already know about the topic and the source.

I: Investigate the Source. Take time and investigate the author and medium publishing the information. What can you find about them? Do they have vested interests? Do they have authority in the area?

F: Find Better (or other) Coverage. See if you can find other sources corroborating the same information. 

T: Trace Back Claims. When an article references a quote from an expert, or results of a research study, it is good practice to attempt to locate the original source of the information whenever possible. [16]

While the focus of news literacy and digital civics is to teach students how to evaluate information they encounter in daily life, these methods can also be used to help students evaluate sources for academic purposes. This should be an important part of information literacy instruction.

Resources for Teaching News Literacy

News Literacy Project, https://newslit.org/.

Check, Please! Starter Course, https://www.notion.so/Check-Please-Starter-Course-ae34d043575e42828dc2964437ea4eed.

Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers, https://webliteracy.pressbooks.com/.

StonyBrook Center for News Literacy, http://www.centerfornewsliteracy.org/resources/.

Stanford Civic Online Reasoning Curriculum, https://cor.stanford.edu/curriculum/.

Notes

[1] News Literacy Project, “Five Types of Misinformation,” News Literacy Project, accessed March 10, 2021, https://newslit.org/educators/resources/misinformation/.

[2] Wardle, Claire, “First Draft’s Essential Guide to Understanding Information Disorder” (First Draft News, October 21, 2019), https://firstdraftnews.org:443/latest/information-disorder-the-technique....

[3] Society of Professional Journalists, “SPJ Code of Ethics - Society of Professional Journalists,” accessed March 10, 2021, https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.

[4] Andrew McGee, “Interactive Media Bias Chart,” Ad Fontes Media, accessed March 16, 2021, https://www.adfontesmedia.com/interactive-media-bias-chart/.

[5] Sam Wineburg et al., “Educating for Misunderstanding: How Approaches to Teaching Digital Literacy Make Students Susceptible to Scammers, Rogues, Bad Actors, and Hate Mongers” (Stanford History Education Group, 2020).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew, “Lateral Reading and the Nature of Expertise: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information,” Teachers College Record 121, no. 11 (2019).

[8] Joel Breakstone et al., “Students’ Civic Online Reasoning: A National Portrait” (Stanford History Education Group, 2019), https://purl.stanford.edu/gf151tb4868.

[9] Cara Evanson and James Sponsel, “From Syndication to Misinformation: How Undergraduate Students Engage with and Evaluate Digital News,” Communications in Information Literacy 13, no. 2 (January 1, 2019), doi:10.15760/comminfolit.2019.13.2.6.

[10] Wineburg et al., “Educating for Misunderstanding”

[11] Wineburg et al., “Educating for Misunderstanding”

[12] Wineburg and McGrew, “Lateral Reading and the Nature of Expertise.”

[13] Wineburg and McGrew, “Lateral Reading and the Nature of Expertise.”

[14] Michael Caulfield, Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers (Self-published, 2017), https://webliteracy.pressbooks.com/.

[15] Michael Caulfield, “Hapgood,” Hapgood, accessed March 10, 2021, https://hapgood.us/.

[16] Michael Caulfield, “SIFT (The Four Moves),” Hapgood, June 19, 2019, https://hapgood.us/2019/06/19/sift-the-four-moves/.