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Information literacy in the fake news era

In a time when the term “fake news” is popular and people are publishing articles on the Internet without vetting, UMBC staff members gave advice to students on how to stay informed on current issues while making sure the information they retrieve is reliable.

With the ability of untrained people to publish anything on the internet or through social media, falsehoods can be published for millions to see. As April Householder, director of Undergraduate Research and Nationally Competitive Scholarships, pointed out, “We used to have faith in journalism and in credible journalists who had taken the… journalistic oath not to be biased.” Now, she said, “Anybody can be a journalist.”

In terms of whether or not someone is likely to encounter fake news, Johanna Gadsby, a reference and instruction librarian at UMBC, believes that “it depends a lot on where you’re getting your information from.” As Gadsby pointed out, many people get their information from sites “posted through social media without a lot of vetting.” According to her, this ease of access may deter individuals from closely examining the news stories through more reliable sources, as it is “more common for us to rely on what we see rather than seeking it out necessarily.”

However, Gadsby believes that seeking out information is important, as is “being able to verify that information through several outlets.” Fellow Reference Librarian Drew Alfgren likewise urges people to “see if the same information is coming from other newspapers.” Gadsby believes it is also important to get information from original sources when possible, such as study results. As she said, “There’s a big difference between the original source and how it’s being reported on.”

Gadsby points out that different papers will report on things differently — for instance, “The Wall Street Journal is going to write about a jobs report differently than the Washington Post is because of the slant of the newspaper.” Gadsby and Alfgren suggest looking at news services that draw from multiple sources, such as LexisNexis, a database available through the UMBC library.

In terms of whether or not a source is credible, Gadsby and Alfgren acknowledge that this can be difficult to figure out. However, some indicators, for instance, “The reputation of the source and the currency of the source,” can help readers determine this. If the information is not current, it is possible that additional details have been discovered since then, thus making the source dated.

In addition, the two librarians remind readers that even from established papers, editorials and opinion columns reflect the opinions of the authors as opposed to reporting the facts. As Alfgren said, “That’s not news; that’s commentary.” Both librarians also point out that “Breaking News” is often rolled out by outlets wanting to report on a situation first, sometimes without conducting heavy fact-checking. Alfgren added, “In depth reporting and breaking news are often two different things.”

As Householder said, undergraduate research can provide students with “an opportunity to get in the habit of being a researcher and an independent thinker.” In addition, she advises students to “follow the money” — look at a media outlet’s source of funding and find out whether there is any vested interest in what they are reporting. This information can be found in the “About Us” areas of websites, an area that can also make political bias more clear.

Gadsby is teaching a First-Year Seminar course called “The Information Diet?” this semester which closely examines this topic and gives students the tools to “better find, evaluate, manage and cite information.”

While there may not be a single foolproof method of finding credible news, the advice given by these staff members can set students on the right path. The key according to Gadsby and Alfgren is to critically think about the sources used and check “facts” by using multiple sources for verification.