Fuzzy Logic: Why Students Need News and Information Literacy Skills

Recognizing the need for reliable and appropriate information—locating, evaluating and using it appropriately—has never been easy. Collecting information once involved a trip to the library—a much different experience than a trip along the information highway. The sheer volume and ease with which information is made available makes it appear deceptively simple to find information. Yet, without the skill to search and navigate mass information mindfully and effectively, it is increasingly difficult to locate reliable sources necessary to fulfill civic roles and life-long learning needs.
In fact, it takes more savvy and skills to locate appropriate and reliable information than what is frequently believed. Strong information gathering skills allow students to be more careful in how and where they search and serve as an important antidote to “fuzzy thinking and logic”—theirs and others’.
About Information and News Literacy
Information literacy is the ability to recognize when information is needed and to locate, evaluate, effectively use and ethically apply the needed information. Both information literacy and news literacy are concerned with evaluating and using information ethically and mindfully—broadly, across many disciplines, as well as within the news context. Information literacy focuses specifically on the search process, recognizing information needs and fulfilling those needs with a purposeful search strategy.
The journey of the search process is applied with purpose—to apply knowledge of information, how it is organized, what the sources are, and how to reach the destination of an appropriate information source. All too often students are taught how to evaluate and understand information, forgetting that the skills required to search for information are critical.
A Librarian’s Perspective
Librarians share concern over student’s inability to search effectively for information and resistance to diverse methods to find credible information—despite the ties students have with the Internet and other media devices. Recent studies from University College London (1) and the University of Washington, The Information School (2) indicate that students are inveterate “power browsers”—they use and search resources that are most familiar to them over and over regardless of the source’s appropriateness for the information need (for example, Google).
Even within the library, students often get stuck using library resources they learned about during their first year of college and rarely extend themselves beyond a handful of such sources. Typically, they use those resources most frequently recommended by their faculty/instructors, and, of course, by their social network. Together, information literacy and news literacy efforts seek to redirect our students to new ways of thinking about how they search as well as how they think—that is, to reduce the possibility for fuzzy thinking and logic.
The use of library news sources for student research is a window into why both information literacy and news literacy skills are needed. My own research with newspaper databases indicates students are using fewer library news databases, such as LexisNexis or Newsbank; rarely use search strategies such as Boolean or positional operators in these databases that would help reduce recall and increase the precision of their searches; and are frequently looking for information in news stories that they would more effectively find elsewhere (statistics or demographics, for example).
It is also apparent that students do not know where to develop a greater understanding of historical events, the pros and cons or the effect/affect of a law or policy—some appear to be “power searching” their way through news databases in the same way they are power-searching their way on the Internet—never searching deeply, effectively, or purposefully. Sometimes they appear to be working very hard looking in all the wrong places, sruggling to find what they need to move forward, or why they could not find what they needed.
The result of these miscues is that students give up before they find information that can be appropriately evaluated and digested. Students typically use information that finds them, rather than deciding what information they need. Unfortunately, these search strategies become repetitive rather than improved and librarians can support students to think outside the information box.
As information sources grow and proliferate on the information highway, students ought to be challenged to locate information that is more challenging and buried, less obvious and more democratic.
Next Steps
Garrick Utley (3), a former NBC journalist, has called the Internet an “infinite digital wilderness”(4) and argues that teachers—and, I would add librarians—need to serve as guides through the wilderness.
To facilitate this, faculty and librarians should partner to:
• develop effective strategies for teaching information and news literacy;
• advise and recommend which Internet and library sources are most useful at each stage of the student’s intellectual development; and,
• team-teach to incorporate these skills into the classroom and curriculum.
Together, we must introduce students to a growing variety of information sources and search strategies that are staged appropriately throughout the curriculum or even within the same course. Search skills and knowledge of a wide range of information sources and their value need to be taught over and over—in the same manner and in the same context that news literacy skills are taught. Students need repeated practice and feedback on the search process, just as they need practice and feedback on learning how to read and understand news forms.
As a librarian, I would also argue we need to teach students how to serve as their own guides—another important aspect of Information literacy—and develop searching strategies that produce accurate and credible information and sources. Teaching our students successful power searching and power thinking requires a collaboration effort of care, thought, and skill. News literacy and information literacy are skills that can serve as the antidote to fuzzy thinking and logic.
As a news librarian, Debora Cheney, seeks to foster news and information literacy by working closely with students, librarians, and faculty colleagues teaching them about the importance of news content in academic libraries and to create an environment within the library which values news resources. As The Larry and Ellen Foster Communications Librarian, she works closely with students in The Pennsylvania State University’s College of Communication.
(1) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future: A CIBER briefing paper (2008). University College London, JISC. Retrieved from www.bl.uk/news/pdf/googlegen.pdf.
(2) Head, A. J. & Eisenberg, M. B. (2009). How college students seek information in the digital age: Lessons learned (Project Information Literacy. Progress Report). Seattle, WA: University of Washington, The Information School. Retrieved from http://projectinfolit.org/pdfs/PIL_Fall2009_Year1Report_12_2009.pdf.
(3) Garrick Utley currently co-hosts American Abroad on Public Radio Internation (PRI).
(4) Garrick Utley. (2009, November). “Academe and the decline of news media.” Chronicle of Higher Education. http://chronicle.com/article/Academethe-Decline-of/49120/