Authority and Credibility in the age of ‘alternative facts’: professional reflections

“A new study from Stanford University* asked more than 7,800 students to evaluate online articles and news sources. And the results, says lead author Sam Wineburg, are bleak. Large portions of the students – at times as much as 80 or 90 percent – had trouble judging the credibility of the news they read.” [source: NPR]

At the same time, Millennials’ trust in the media, at 11%, has reached an all-time low. (2016 Harvard Youth Poll)

These studies support my observations from the library classroom. In my work with first year students through to my work with graduate students I hear students voicing similar themes, such as, “Bias is everywhere.” “Facts are the best type of information.” Rarely does a student suggest that one source could be corroborated with another source. Even if that is suggested in our age of information abundance, I’m afraid that students are likely to “check the facts” with the same originating source because their filter bubbles and mass replication of “news” would make that source easily accessible.

I have found that the Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education from ACRL has been helpful to me for guiding students to practicing more critical thinking when evaluating sources. Especially the frame, Authority is Constructed and Contextual. This frame is briefly described by ACRL to mean:

Information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility, and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used. Authority is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. It is contextual in that the information need may help to determine the level of authority required.

So how is this helpful to my instruction? First, instead of using bias as a means to reject or dismiss sources, bias becomes a question to engage. What is the author’s bias? Do I agree with that bias? Why or why not? Are their authors who disagree with this bias? If so, what are they saying? What are their biases?

Secondly, facts are no longer the defining characteristic of a good source. Now, I realize that this frame is being scrutinized precisely for this reason. I am not suggesting that facts are not important much less that truth is not important.* Quite the opposite! Because truth is important, students need to question the “facts” they find in their sources. Most students are not adequately equipped for this task, especially first-year students. This is why learning to question the author’s or publisher’s authority and the context of the source is important. Why did the author write this? Who is the author writing to? Why is the audience interested in reading this particular source written by this particular author and published by this particular publisher?

Finally, the frame opens up a dialogue with faculty who assign research papers. Beginning with the current state of students’ evaluation skills, I can then ask questions like, “Why do you want your students to seek information?” “Do you think your students seek information that will affirm their thesis or be open to conflicting ideas?” “Do you think students will research to learn or research to meet assignment requirements?” From there we can start to develop a better strategy for research design. Here are some strategies that could help students gain more from the research experience.

  1. Read two sources on a topic before developing a thesis.
  2. Explain the rhetorical context of each source you read.
  3. Justify your decision to engage your sources in your writing.
  4. In lieu of a paper, synthesize ideas of several authors on the topic, giving particular attention to their authority and context. The frame, Scholarship as Conversation would be helpful for this assignment.

How are you using the Frames to engage students in this age of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post-truth’?

*See: Nathan Aaron Rinne, (2017) “The new Framework: a truth-less construction just waiting to be scrapped?”, Reference Services Review, Vol. 45 Issue: 1, pp.54-66, doi: 10.1108/RSR-06-2016-0039

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