“Fake news,” “alternative facts”—these previously unfamiliar terms and concepts are now part of our lexicon, thanks to a number of factors—like an alarming increase of misinformation and purposeful disinformation across social media platforms and dubious “news” sites.
At a time when there is so much media available, when anyone with a smartphone can be a “citizen journalist,” and when foreign governments are intentionally seeding misleading information into the media stream, it’s difficult to sort the true from the false and the real from the fake. The real question is, what can we do about it? Since I come from the world of librarianship, it will come as no surprise when I say that librarians have a unique opportunity and duty to restore reliance on facts to today’s discourse.
The history of objective news coverage
Throughout ancient history, libraries were devoted to scholarship, research, philosophy and knowledge—a mission that largely remained unchanged until the rise of digital media in the last few decades. At the same time, the dissemination of news evolved rapidly as paper gave way to radio, then to broadcast television, then to cable and finally to the internet. Traditional sources of objective news coverage were supplanted by thousands, perhaps millions of individual outlets that had little or no commitment to journalistic standards, peer review and meticulous fact-checking.
Compounding the problem, many mainstream media outlets have been unable to adapt to the financial realities of an online business model. The result has been shrinking budgets for news staff and erosion of journalistic standards even in the media outlets we historically regard as objective purveyors of the facts. On the broadcast side, the major networks have transformed from covering news as a public service, fulfilling their requirement to the Federal Communications Commission, to a highly competitive environment in which news is another form of programming with profit expectations.
Finally, the education system of the US is also not what it once was. Students are taught fewer critical thinking and analysis skills, and many lack the ability to form a hypothesis and perform basic research to prove or disprove it. Many students make it all the way to college without learning how to properly conduct research, fact check claims and cite sources. Often those sources are biased in favor of a particular sponsor or special interest.
Today’s students, and many adults, communicate with peers and society at-large via social media platforms. As we’ve recently discovered, those platforms can be easily co-opted by any organized outfit wanting to spread a particular message to a targeted audience for their own purposes.
These rapid changes—the decline of traditional media, the slippage of critical thinking and the overwhelming dominance of the internet and social media in our daily lives—have all contributed to this “post-fact” era, as described by Francis Fukuyama at Stanford University,
“One of the more striking developments of 2016 was the emergence of a “post-fact” world, in which virtually all authoritative information sources are challenged by contrary facts of dubious quality and provenance. In a world without gatekeepers, there is no reason to think that good information will win out over bad.”
Librarians as the gatekeepers
The need for information literacy and its emphasis on evaluating the veracity of claims has never been greater. Librarians at all levels, whether working in education, public libraries or special libraries, are an excellent resource to step us back from the brink of disinformation and falsehoods. We can impart the critical thinking skills needed to evaluate information in a world of information overload. Librarians can show and explain what makes a source of information credible or questionable, and how to recognize current, trustworthy information.
Journalistic integrity is a direct outcome of having well-developed information literacy skills. Journalists of every stripe would do well to sharpen those skills to help convince an increasingly skeptical public that they’re not just reacting to the latest tweet or crisis, and are actually using an established framework to vet the facts.
In their roles as guides to trusted sources of information, librarians hold a deeply ingrained belief that the truth can be found—we just have to be able to recognize it. By nurturing that ability in everyone, librarians can help us all return to a civil, fact-based society that respects opinions while valuing truth.
If your organization needs assistance with finding and evaluating reliable information, LAC research and intelligence services can help.