Ours is the age of paradox. Just a few decades ago, experts were predicting that the amount of leisure time that the average person would enjoy would increase astronomically. With the advent of time-saving technology (dishwashers, laundry machines, copy machines, computers, cars), there was actually a concern that people wouldn’t have enough work to do. Rather than finding ourselves with serious amounts of time on our hands, we find that our technology has given us time to tackle the extra work that appeared to fill the down time. Another paradox is communication: transmitting information and ideas has never been faster or easier, but what we are saying is becoming simpler and shorter all the time. We communicate more but say less. The reason for the trend for quicker and quicker communication? We don’t have the time to read long pieces or ponder intricate issues. Quite a different state than the predicted age of leisure.
Here’s where things get dicey— we often assume efficient communication means that information is condensed without the loss of quality. But if we admit what our life experience tells us, we know that nothing in life is easily categorized and filed into boxes. However, while we know life is complicated, we often take what we read at face value. Most of the information that we receive, whether it’s news articles, weather reports, or clothing magazines, has been pre-processed for us.
However, we are not released from the responsibility of evaluating what we read or hear, or from educating ourselves on the issues of our day. There are avalanches of fake news and misinformation out there, and if you’re not careful, you’ll get buried. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) released a helpful poster to encourage students to be more critical about what they were reading, an encouragement that all of us could use. Here’s what they suggest:
Consider the Source: Click away from the source to investigate the site, its mission, and its contact info.
Every group of people that comes together for a purpose, like a news website for example, has a mission, as well as a bias. We tend to think of bias as an absolutely negative thing, but the truth is, we can’t avoid it. The important thing is to be aware of it and evaluate accordingly.
Check the Author: Do a quick search on the author. Are they credible? Are they real?
So many of us are quick to repost articles or blog posts that support our point of view without checking on the validity of the author. Does this person have authority or expertise in the field? Do they even exist? If the author doesn’t satisfy these questions, then the article, no matter how well written, loses credibility and authority.
Check the Date: Reposting old news stories doesn’t mean they’re relevant to current events.
This is another important element to consider when reading news—particularly online. We tend to think that news that we are seeing is current because we are used to fairly instantaneous news reporting. This is a bias in itself, because we interpret what we are reading in the light of current events, and that reading that could be quite wrong if it is old news.
Check Your Biases: Consider if your own beliefs could affect your judgment.
I think it’s wonderful that they included this advice. In the current social climate, we are becoming used to the idea that disagreement is equal to factual inaccuracy. That is to say, if people are disagreeing, then someone must be wrong, rather than both parties having valid points that could lead to their conclusions. Because of this, we can discredit sources that disagree with us because we subconsciously believe that they are inaccurate, false, or shallow. We might avoid reading counterarguments or opposing points of view because of this belief—if we already know that they are wrong, there is little point in exploring their perspective.
Read Beyond: Headlines can be outrageous in effort to get clicks. What’s the whole story?
Newspaper headlines used to sell papers. Think of the callers on sidewalks broadcasting the latest murder or political upheaval to get someone interested in purchasing a copy to read the story. We don’t think of websites as the same because much of what we read we can access for free—at least it doesn’t ask us to pay for anything. Clicks, or internet traffic, is a business just like selling newspapers, and some sources will twist news in any fashion to generate interest or, more likely, outrage, to get our business.
Supporting Sources?: Click on those links. Determine if the info given actually supports the story.
How many people reading this blog post will actually hunt down the article I referred to at the beginning about the prediction about leisure time? (If you’re interested, it’s John Maynard Keynes’ 1930 essay “Economic Possibility of Our Grandchildren”) You don’t have to take my summary of the essay as hard truth—read the essay for yourself and join a conversation that has been ongoing over our lifetimes. Some writers will include sources to look more reputable and well-researched while those sources are either contradictory or irrelevant to their argument. Be aware.
Is It a Joke?: If it is too outlandish, it might be satire. Research the site and author to be sure.
This is nothing new. In 1729, Jonathan Swift published his infamous A Modest Proposal that made a case for cannibalism as a solution to food shortages. His work, a satire intended to criticize denigrating attitudes of the British government towards the poor and disadvantaged, was not seriously suggesting eating newborn children. However, his work was misunderstood then, as well as today by students like the ones in an undergraduate English class I attended in which Swift was roundly denounced as a monster whose work should be burned, not studied. Make sure you know the author’s intent.This seems like it goes without saying, but just take a look at literallyunbelievable.org to see how common it is to mistake fake (ridiculous) news as the truth.
Ask the Experts: Ask a librarian, or consult a fact-checking site.
There are people who have lots of experience and understanding of the issues who are happy to share them. Educate yourself and take advantage of learning from others.