An Information Scientist Talks Media Literacy, Political Memes, and the Value of Librarians

Alison Head, a co-author of a new report on the media habits of almost 6,000 college students, explains why news consumption has become an arduous task for younger generations.
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People wait outside Apple's Regent Street store in central London on November 3rd, 2017.

According to a new report, women's news sharing vastly outpaces men's, 72 percent to 27 percent.

Throughout the past few years of fake news scares, it became apparent to Alison Head that the conversation around the phenomenon was missing a bigger story.

"People kept saying to me, 'You gotta do something on fake news,' and I thought, it's such a bigger issue than that," says Head, an information scientist at Project Information Literacy, a non-profit research institution focused on how students receive and use information.

Finally, partnering with Northeastern University journalism professor John Wihbey; Northeastern historian Dan CohenTakis Metaxas, a computer science professor at Wellesley College; and PIL senior researcher Margy Macmillan; Head followed up on her instincts: She and her co-authors released a study last week on the media consumption habits of almost 6,000 college students. While their findings include statistics and interviews about fake news (36 percent of students don't trust any news, many citing fake news in their rationale), the report's scope takes a much wider view of the role news plays in students' lives, the steps they take to verify it, and what they do with the information they find. The research also investigates how news is classified—for example, giving "political memes" its own category in student responses.

The report also analyzed Twitter data from 731 of the student participants. It found significant differences in news consumption and sharing habits between demographic groups—women's news sharing vastly outpaces men's (72 percent to 27 percent), and liberal students share twice as much as conservatives (28 percent to 14 percent).

In a conversation with Pacific Standard, Head unpacked the report's findings, speaking about "lateral news reading," the drastic uptick in the percentage of students following political news, how schools are failing students with respect to news consumption, and what librarians might have to do with all this.

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Among the most striking findings in your study is that 89 percent of college students follow political news, compared to the 43 percent of people in their twenties that the American Press Institute found in 2015. The sample groups are a little different, but that seems like a huge jump.

It more than doubled; it's insane! We asked the same question [as the original study], although, yes, of a different sample. Students felt, even in their short lives, news had changed. Part of it's the Trump effect, but I think it's really that the Parkland generation is paying attention. They have an issue. I can't tell you how many times school shootings came up. It's definitely on their minds. They're going to hear about it on their phones. The 24-hour news cycle has spun out of control to this hyper-velocity model that's coming at them. The technology feeds them these stories in a way that news always has urgency. So much of news is treated like breaking news, whether it is or not. Kate Spade, she made nice purses, and her suicide is a tragedy. But is it breaking news? It's confusing to students.

Do you think some of that 89 percent might drop back down to a percentage closer to 43 percent when there's a less dramatic presidential administration?

I think news has fundamentally changed. In the report, one student says, "I look at news that directly affects my life; that's what prompts me to click." There's that interactive nature with news that wasn't there before; they can actually share and contribute to news. That's unique. So I think we're seeing a real transition here. News is now something you engage in. It's visual, it's fast. It's social.

What are the externalities of that change? Are people better informed, or just more stressed?

Sixty-eight percent feel overwhelmed by the news, but at the same time, they have an old-fashioned view of news: it's important to a democracy. Eight in 10 say that. Almost two-thirds say it's [a] civic responsibility to follow news. Yet, they're highly suspicious of the news they have access to now. They're looking at news from five different pathways each week. But I think the reasons they're suspicious are pretty darn smart. The students talked about pleas for their clicks.

Alison Head.

Alison Head.

One of my favorite student interviews [for the study] introduced the idea of fast news—that news is getting faster and faster for them. But I don't know if they're that satisfied with how fast news is coming at them. It's work! It's not a leisure pastime anymore. You read laterally, you check against sources. There's that great quote where a student said, "I spend more time looking for an unbiased site than I do reading the news."

Thirty-six percent of our sample say, "I don't trust any news because of fake news." I'd be worried if I were a journalist. But I'm worried as an academic; we're not doing enough in classrooms.

That relates to an answer you included in the question about where students got their news: librarians. Besides friends and professors, it was the only human source included. I tend to think of librarians as resources for books, not news.

This has been really a call to arms for librarians, the whole fake news phenomenon. They are who you go to get the best information, the "truth" about something. They have tremendous research skills. They've been teaching seminars through Information Schools on how to detect fake news. They see themselves as a solution to the problem.

In the report you write that research methods traditionally taught in school are "counterproductive in assessing news for use in different situations, such as their personal lives and the workplace, where they will spend most of their post-graduation lives." Can you elaborate?

When librarians work with students in class, they have a methodology for how to evaluate information. For example, what is the best way to look at a journal article? The package is pretty neatly organized. But if you look at the news landscape, that method of evaluating currency and authority—the rubrics and measures of quality information—are really coming apart. What they're being taught in college doesn't necessarily apply or transfer to when you're looking for news out there in the Wild West of news sources. We should say, "Let's talk about where you're getting most of your news, and let's teach you how to really evaluate in those very difficult environments that we're all struggling with." And [schools] are not doing it.

Your report talked a lot about what you call lateral news reading—students cross-referencing news with different (and sometimes ideologically opposed) sources. Is that a new phenomenon, or have adults and students been doing that going back decades?

I think it's new. Before, it cost money. Every city had its competing newspapers. San Fransisco even had the Chronicle and the Examiner, and you didn't buy both. Boston had the Herald-American, the conservative working-class paper, and the Globe, which was kind of the elite paper. And you didn't buy both papers unless you were a journalism student.

There is also an element of play. It's a click away. It's not like you're in the library and going to pull the newspaper and look at it on microfilm. It's easy to jump around and find out where a source has originated from, and what the credibility may be. One of the things that a good college education does: You start looking at multiple opinions and points of view. They are engaging in that kind of scholarly news communication, on their own time.

There was a sizable difference in percentage of liberal students who shared news (28 percent) compared with conservative students who shared news (14 percent). Why do you think that is?

I wasn't surprised by the breakdown. There are more liberal publications. Also, Democrats are really under fire by Trump. If you look at the reasons why news is shared, it's that you want to have a voice in the world. If you're in power and you have a voice in the world, you don't have as much to share maybe.

There are more liberals in most institutions, certainly the ones in our sample. And [most liberals in college] are usually in the same filter bubble with people who have the same views. And [because these colleges are more liberal] you would see fewer bubbles of conservatives. So conservatives may be quieter, and they may be sharing in different ways, and in different formats. If you look at the social science literature, you usually share with people that confirm your thoughts.

I thought it was interesting that political memes were included as a response category for news that students engaged with, alongside subjects like "crime and public safety" and "traffic and weather." And memes were wildly popular, with 82 percent of students engaging with them weekly. Can you unpack their inclusion as a subject?

We put the political memes in the survey because students kept bringing them up in the focus groups early on. Students would say: "That's how I find out what's going on in the world, and what kind of stories I should be looking at." What's being shared, what's being laughed about, so in a way, they were newsworthy. One student that talked about the importance of news for democracy also said, "Even fake news starts conversations."

Satire can amplify issues. Sure, you laugh about them, but you are going to think about them. It's part of the shifting nature of news: news is not confined to these categories of "here's the most important thing to know." The delivery has changed, and memes are part of it. To get a joke, you have to know the context. In that sense, a lot of students found memes as an entryway into news.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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