new report out from Project Information Literacy!

covid first 100 days image of newspaper planesIt’s always a red-letter day when Project Information Literacy comes out with a report. As a librarian, I always found them thought-provoking, reassuring (oh good, it’s not just our students who do that), and inspiring models of research methods, setting the bar for both qualitative and quantitative research on a scale most librarians can only dream of. These reports have always been great to share with faculty across the campus who play a key role in learning how to navigate information. It really helps to have solid research when you’re advocating for information literacy instruction with scholars who want evidence.

Looking at the big picture, I’ve always found PIL’s reports intriguing when thinking about the social implications of information literacy. What do students think they learn from their involvement with research during their undergraduate years? Do they find it personally rewarding, or just a series of hoops to jump through? How does that kind of learning connect with information seeking after college? Does all that effort we put into helping students seek and analyze information transfer to non-school-related inquiry? After publishing a series of the field’s most robust and large-scale investigations into the undergraduate experience of research and what comes after, the new directions PIL has gone in with recent studies address those questions in fascinating ways.

In the wake of the 2016 election and Brexit referendum, PIL conducted a massive study of how students engage with news. It was timely and full of insights during a moment when “fake news” and the flow of news through social media was raising important questions that information literacy research and practice tends to neglect – how do students encounter or search for news, and how do they use it? The next study, Information Literacy in the Age of Algorithms, was a qualitative study involving student focus groups and faculty interviews. It delved into people’s understanding of algorithms as they influence information flows and other aspects of society. That one gave me a chance to peer behind the curtain and see what goes into a PIL production: a lot of planning, many collaborations across the country, a lot of testing, a rigorous insistence on research ethics, and many, many drafts before a final report is published. That’s because I got to spend a year as PIL’s scholar-in-residence, working on a topic that’s close to my heart but hard to integrate into faculty expectations of what “information literacy” means. (The good news is that the faculty we interviewed seemed to think this aspect of information literacy is important and should be addressed, somehow.) It feels as if PIL, so long a part of my life, is anticipating all the questions I’ve ever had about information literacy.

Today, a new study has been launched into the world, and it’s yet another inventive new venture, a two-part dive into how COVID-19 was covered in the news in the first 100 days of 2020. It includes a set of classroom materials to get students into the act. (Full disclosure: I was invited to take a look at drafts of these reports, and I got to suggest some possible assignments instructors could use – so much fun! Especially since, for once, I’m not having to grade the assignments.) There are suggestions for instructors, slides that can be adapted for use, and a great list of resources on COVID-19 misinformation – not the subject of the report, but an important piece of the information environment that has formed around the subject.

These are the three research questions this study tackled:

  1. How did the coronavirus story develop and spread during the first 100 days of 2020? Which news outlets published the most Covid-19 news stories?
  2. How did photos from mainstream news outlets visually represent the story? What visual messaging and rhetorical strategies were employed in photos appearing in the rapidly changing news narrative?
  3. How is news experienced in the 21st century? What does the Covid-19 coverage show about the massively distributed and interactive nature of the news ecosystem, and how news consumers are situated within it?

Researchers used MediaCloud to pull out and analyze the “shape of news” (I love that concept) and how it was visually represented through images. This raises two ways of understanding information that so rarely are addressed in our information literacy efforts. What happens over time to a topic? And what kinds of knowledge do we pick up through visual images? So often we have students focus on critiquing a single text or learning heuristics for deciding whether a source is valid. That’s important, but so is seeing sources in context over time. There are some very cool interactive charts in the first report that convey this idea, that news has a shape that changes over time, all ready to use with a class.

The second report takes a look at images that accompany the news and invite us to think about how they shape messages through choices about lighting, angle, and composition. This was something of a revelation to me. I hardly ever talked with students about images, apart from art history courses. But visual literacy is important, and I imagine would be interesting to students as they learn – and share what they already know. Reading texts (texts made of words) is the dominant way information is conveyed in college classrooms, but images are a big part of our information landscape today. Certainly in the context of news, it makes sense to include photojournalism.

These two reports, which focus on concepts usually left out of information literacy instruction – that information has a shape over time and that images convey meaning through a variety of visual techniques – provide a research-based case study that can help students develop “information agency” – what a great phrase! In my experience, confirmed by the findings of PIL’s News Study, students are skeptical of the press and have little or no sense of the ethical traditions that, however imperfectly, undergird the practice of journalism. It’s important now, more than ever, that information literacy includes learning about how information works beyond an emphasis on peer review on the one hand and identifying misinformation in the popular realm on the other.

Twenty years ago I was thinking about how to do this when I created my own case study of how various information providers – book publishers, newspapers, magazines, television, and official sources – addressed the then mostly forgotten moral panic of the 1980s and early 1990s: Satanic ritual abuse. When I published that article in 2003, it seemed a weird artifact of the past, but its twisted folklore has returned with a vengeance in the form of QAnon hysteria about pedophilia. In the intervening years I tried to include more discussion of how media have different traditions of deciding what stories to tell and what constitutes evidence and how those differ across different media types, but it was still hard work to pry myself away from the focus faculty typically wanted on finding and evaluating scholarly sources for a very specific kind of text-based writing.

I hope this latest PIL report will help librarians and faculty think beyond that confined notion of what it means to be information literate. The COVID topic is timely, though I can think of many ways these ideas and tools could be infused into other subjects. However we address it, we all could work on strengthening “information agency” to equip us to live in this strange world of ours.

Thanks, Alison Head & co.! Excuse me while I go play with MediaCloud . . .

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