A recent study by the Stanford Education Group found—in part—that more than nine out of 10 college students couldn’t recognize a lobby group website posing as a reputable news site. Researchers summarized their findings in one word: "bleak." But on college campuses, the study didn’t raise as many eyebrows as you might expect.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” said Anne Mattina, a Professor of Communication at Stonehill College, recalling the moment she heard about the findings.
Mattina has been teaching Stonehill for two decades. She and many of her colleagues say the study confirms what they already knew: students are not considering where the information they find on the web is coming from and whether it’s biased.
“They’re very skilled at a lot of things, but this does not seem to be something that they’re taught consistently,” Mattina said.
The results come at a critical time: There’s now more misleading information online, on both fake news sites and hyper-partisan blogs. A BuzzFeed analysis found that during the election, those bogus stories generated more engagement than stories from major news outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post.
This new reality is prompting academics and librarians on campuses across the country to mobilize. In December, Stonehill librarians held a meeting—the first of its kind—to determine how to get students to be discerning consumers of online news.
“We’re in this very specific moment to capitalize on to say ‘this is everything you’re consuming online, here’s how to think critically about it,” said Liz Chase, Head of Collections, Assessment and User Engagement at Stonehill's MacPhaidin Library.
Chase led the discussion, presenting an online module that she’s built for professors to use in their classes. The tool includes a diagnostic test created to help professors determine whether students can tell which news stories are real and which are fake. It also features news stories as case studies and links to some tips to help students analyze news sources. For example, students are advised to avoid websites that end in ‘com.co’. Those are often fake versions of real sources.
Bottom line: Librarians and professors want students to check their sources.
Throughout the presentation, professors chimed in with their questions and concerns.
Karen Teoh, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Asian Studies Program at Stonehill, said it will take more than one forum, or one online tool, to make sure those skills stick, and that students use them when they're browsing their social media newsfeeds, as well as when they're doing work for their classes.
“We need some kinds of concerted, consistent strategy to show them that in pretty much every discipline, every course they take–required or otherwise–this discrimination when it comes to sources is key,” Teoh said.
That sentiment is being echoed at colleges and universities throughout the country.
“It’s a huge discussion,” said Julie Todaro, President of the American Libraries Association. Todaro says college librarians have always been there to help faculty and students with information literacy. But, she says, under the new President-elect's administrations, the jobs of librarians are more complicated than ever.
“Now what we’re seeing is those very sources that we would sort of hold up and use as credible–the White House, [and] experts from the White House–that is all suspect now. Teaching people how to vet knowledge and looking at the credentials of people is a completely new world,” Todaro said.
According to Todaro, librarians at most colleges and universities around the country are now stepping in to help faculty integrate information literacy and critical thinking programs into the curriculum.
The challenge now, professors say, will be to find the time to teach this on top of everything else they must do.
But, they say, it’s too important to let it slide.