By now, all of us have heard the term fake news. It’s become another overused phrase, insidious in how it sticks like a bad smell. Yet its very stickiness is what makes it such a useful rhetoric device. Rhetoric is just one of the concepts we at the New York City School Library System teach as part of our series on Information Literacy in the Age of Fake News. We had qualms about using the term fake news because it borders on cliché and is inaccurate if you think about it: Fake news is not the problem; the labeling of legitimate news as fake is the issue because it delegitimizes reputable news organizations and sources. If people feel they cannot trust the majority of information sources, they are vulnerable to the hyperbolic rhetoric of the loudest and most extreme voices. At the same time, we know the recognition and catchiness of the term fake news and want to reach the largest number of participants possible. We want our students to be critical readers and analyzers of information but don’t want to raise a generation of cynics. We want our students to build trust and respect for education, institutions, the rule of law, and democratic governments but also question and push back against bias, unfairness, and injustice. So how do we do teach these necessary skills when competing with test prep, academic requirements, and overloaded teachers?
I believe the answer is finding out what information literacy instruction is already going on in classrooms.
In practice, this means finding out not only the content but the skills required in assignments and projects. What are students expected to learn and already know how to do? Do they need to build background knowledge? Yes. Then learning the difference between different types of sources – an encyclopedia article versus a book versus an op-ed versus a partisan website – will help them select the best sources to develop their understanding of a topic. Do they know the difference between fact and opinion, recognize cause and effect, analyze evidence to compare and contrast it, and evaluate multiple points of view? No. Then we school librarians can teach students these skills — lessons on deconstructing arguments based on logical fallacies, reading laterally to evaluate authority, determining the differences between claims (an opinion stated as fact) and opinions — with our content area teaching partner, so students successfully complete assignments and gain vital skills in the process.
Many educators may be unfamiliar with the term information literacy but know problem-solving or college readiness and of course, fake news. While it may be difficult to design a stand-alone course on research and information literacy, it is becoming easier for educators to identify the natural connection between teaching state standards and the skills embedded in learning this required content. So while it may be difficult to convince your harried school leaders of the importance of teaching information literacy, you can make the case with teachers by telling them they are already doing this and how you can support their planning and instruction. Offering to lead a professional workshop on misinformation or digital citizenship is a good way to articulate our vital role in teaching the critical thinking skills our students need to thrive in this complicated world to distinguish a valid claim from a vicious, self-serving one.