Information Quality, Youth, and Media: A Research Update

The Internet has changed the ways in which information, knowledge, and entertainment is created, distributed, accessed, used and re-used (see Benkler, 2006). These shifts have not only led to an unprecedented amount of online information, but have also changed the information ecosystem. The limited number of standards for quality control and evaluation, the convergence of media and the shifts in context are complicating features of the new environment that make quality judgments for youth more challenging and respective evaluation skills more important (Flanagin & Metzger, 2008, pp. 12-14; Hargittai, 2008).
Within the Berkman Center for Internet & Society’s Youth and Media Policy Working Group Initiative—led by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser together with danah boyd, and generously supported by a MacArthur Foundation grant—we were inspired to find a new approach to these issues by three observations. First, while advocates of media education sometimes take for granted the ability to find information online (e.g., Buckingham, 2003, p. 77), as phrased recently in Youth Media Reporter, “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” (Cheney, 2010).
Second, while we as adults have not necessarily figured out ideal ways to navigate this new ecosystem either, the concepts by which we have been approaching evaluation may not be ideal to apply to youth. For example, Miriam Metzger, in her and Andrew Flanagin’s recent landmark study of Kids and Credibility (2010), found during early phases of study design that youth younger than 11 years of age were not able to grasp the concept of credibility well enough to involve in the study (Metzter, April 2010, private communication).
Third, and perhaps most interestingly, among youth there is a culture of content creation. While very few youth are creating sophisticated remix videos or writing fanfiction, even acts as simple as posting to friends’ walls on social networking sites are acts of writing and creation. Furthermore, when youth share links with one another, they are effectively identifying information as valuable in some way (interesting, useful, entertaining, etc.) and disseminating it. We hypothesize that this culture of youth content creation is likely to have an impact on the ability of youth to navigate the media ecology, and that information literacy might be able to draw on this culture. However, such possible links are rarely considered on a strategic level.
Assessing Information: A (New) Challenge for Youth
With these three observations in mind, the Youth and Media Policy Working Group Initiative has embarked on a comprehensive effort to compile background research and conduct original research as necessary, and then to use this research to develop educational programs and policy recommendations. We are nearly complete with the first stage, a comprehensive literature review examining the range of research related to credibility and information quality concerns. In addition, it explores corresponding youth practices of information seeking, consumption, application, creation, and dissemination. We have drawn on literature from the areas of library and information science, education, anthropology and ethnography, and psychology.
The main goal of the literature review is to explore the three observations introduced above. Two additional goals emerged in the process of conducting research. When we realized that there was a large difference between looking at issues through the perspective of youth and looking at issues through an adults perspective (Palfrey/Gasser, pp. 155-183), another goal became to organize such differences in perspectives. For example, when we seek to explore the challenges faced by youth, it is very different to ask, “what are young users’ goals and what challenges do they face in trying to achieve them?”, and to ask,” what objectives do we was parents, educators, etc. want youth to strive for that they currently do not, and how do we teach such objectives to them?”. It is important for us to consider both meanings, to make sure information literacy programs are relevant for youth, and do not aim only to accomplish the objectives of adults. Another goal of the literature review, also emerging from the literature, is to understand how the challenges that youth face are modulated by variables such as immersion in digital media, access (the “digital divide”), and cognitive development.
In order to achieve our goals, the literature review is not just an organization of existing literature and research, but an attempt to go beyond the terms in which the existing literature understands itself and build a new, comprehensive framework.
A New Framework: Information Quality
A major conceptual contribution of the literature review is to propose a framework of “Information Quality.” Contrary to what the term might suggest, by this we do not suggest that information (as “meaning”) has some intrinsic, objective quality we can assess (nor do we mean quality in the sense it is used in the juxtaposition of quality vs. quantity). Building upon a tradition established by Martin Eppler (2003) and others, our use of “quality” is relativistic. That is, quality is largely determined by the individual, so the exact same article or website may be “high quality” for one person but “low quality” for another, depending on user-based variables (e.g. prior knowledge about the topic area) and contextual factors (e.g. available time-frame for processing the information).
There are two central advantages of adopting such a framework. The first is that this framework of “Information Quality” shifts from a product-centered to a process-centered approach. The quality of information depends not just on the relationship of an information object to an individual, but also on how that information object is situated with respect to accessibility, convenience, speed, and relevance.
Already, credibility researchers have begun to modify the concept of credibility, for example by moving away from an “authority-based approach to credibility” to a “reliability approach” (Lankes, 2008, p. 106). But at their core, concepts such as “credibility,” “trust,” “authority,” and even “reliability” are proxies for truth, attempts to find a shorthand for assessing the truth of claims for which the media consumer has no firsthand experiential knowledge. Information Quality attempts to move away from an implicit correspondence theory of truth to a relativistic framework by defining the value (quality) of information by its contextual relationship to individuals, and not by its ability to be anchored to an external objective reality. Of course, this does not preclude analysis according to concepts such as those listed above: information that does not have consistency with experienced reality will be of lower quality. Quality is constrained by nature, but not uniquely determined by it and hence is not a stand-in for it.
The second advantage of this framework is that it has the potential to span both the descriptive and the prescriptive. An implicit tension between social science research (especially ethnography) and the field of education is that the former seeks to describe the behavior of youth in their own terms, whereas a central assumption of the latter is that youth habits and cognition need to be changed and developed.
To make this span between description and prescription more explicit, we introduce three “conceptions” of information quality: an ethnographic conception, an adult-normative conception, and a theoretical conception. The ethnographic conception is the most reflexive: quality is defined purely behaviorally, such that the highest quality information is the information chosen over other information. For a youth rushing to complete a school assignment about which she is indifferent, this may mean that quality criteria of “convenient” far outweighs what we (or even the student) might interpret as “relevant” or “consistent.”
The adult-normative conception is the application of adult criteria and standards to children. We use this conception of information quality mainly to classify hybrid literature that is partially social science in its study of youth behavior, but that interprets findings in non-ethnographic terms. Such literature employs concepts like credibility/reliability/authority, taking them to be well-defined even if student-subjects who are the topic of study do not use such concepts (e.g., see Eastin, 2008, pp. 37-38). Neither fully descriptive, nor solely prescriptive, such literature is important in measuring the behavior of youth against prescriptive constructs.
The third conception of quality, the theoretical conception, is a prescriptive formulation of information quality. This is how people ought to think about information quality. While criteria such as “convenience” and “consistency” will still be a part of overall quality, how such concepts are determined and weighed relative to one another will be different under a theoretical conception than under an ethnographic conception. Developing and instilling such refined standards of information quality, then, becomes the task of information literacy.
Opportunities from Content Creation
As discussed before, this literature review is the first step in a comprehensive process. The literature review in itself is not an educational program, or policy recommendations, and thus will not be directly useful for the day-to-day work of those engaged in teaching literacy in media, news and information. However, we can take some preliminary results and look beyond the literature review to some possible next steps.
Of particular interest to educators might be our explorations of how important learning opportunities for information literacy can come out of activities like the creation of profiles and communication with peers on social networking sites, self-expression through online journals, the sharing of media via popular platforms such as YouTube, and the writing of fanfiction. One opportunity comes through using such content creation for engagement. For example, another Berkman Center initiative has already developed a copyright curriculum that uses cases of “remixed” media as a way to introduce and begin a dialogue about issues such as copyright, ownership, source, and media control. This attempts to foster the understanding of creative rights and their limitations and link the phenomenon to the (implicit) quality criteria youth have about the media they produce.
Another example might be bringing remixing directly into classroom activities, similar to how creating collages from print media is sometimes used as a classroom activity. But unlike a collage (which most students would not do outside the classroom), the outcome would not just be to involve kids in media analysis with a “fun” activity; we would seek, with such an activity, to break down the barrier between personal and academic contexts. David Buckingham (2003, p. 112) describes “[repeatedly encountering] a high degree of cynicism about advertising among children at around this age [7 or 8]…” such that his attempts to teach kids to “see through” ads “can easily result in a situation which is all too familiar in media education: where the teacher appears to be trying to teach students things which they believe they already know.” He argues that media education must relate to students’ “own experience and identities” (p. 117). Bringing into the classroom media creation activities that youth do in their personal lives would, in addition to bringing in a range of potentially sophisticated analytical and creative skills youth already have, give a chance of breaking down contexts.
Recognizing that there is a vast range of content creation among youth (ranging from simple posts on friends’ walls, to blogging or vlogging, to full-out video remixing), and that many youth do not have the sophisticated skills we would seek to draw on for academic contexts, another opportunity the Youth and Media Policy Working Group Initiative is exploring is to establish a “Youth and Media Lab.” Such a lab could organize sessions to encourage tacit transfer of skills among youth peers—recognizing that while tacit knowledge between youth peers transfer abounds on the Internet, many youth not participating would still benefit from more organized encouragement. The environment of such a lab would also allow us to perform ethnographic studies of youth content creation to more effectively use it for classroom activities.
Next Steps
As a background to developing specific programs and proposals, we believe that it is an important task to organize social science research traditions. If we can coordinate not only sometimes disparate academic communities, but also establish a continuous dialogue between academics, education, policy, and law, we believe it will lead to better research, better education, and better policy and law.
The completed literature review will be publicly available through the MacArthur Foundation and the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) later this year. We hope that the insights we present in our literature review will help not only us but others as well to gain a more sophisticated understanding of the new information ecology, to help us as we move forward with our task of ensuring the health of our democracy by bolstering the skill set of the next generation of information consumers—and producers.
Urs Gasser is Executive Director at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. His research and teaching focus on information law and policy and the interaction between law and innovation. Current research projects—several of them in collaboration with leading research institutions in the U.S., Europe, and Asia—explore policy and educational challenges for young Internet users, the regulation of digital media and technology (with emphasis on IP law), ICT interoperability, the institutional settings for fostering entrepreneurship, and the law’s impact on innovation and risk in the ICT space. He has published and edited, respectively, seven books and has written over 60 articles in books, law reviews, and professional journals. Together with John Palfrey, he is the author of “Born Digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives” (Basic Books, 2008). Previously, he served as the Faculty Director the Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland), where he was an Associate Professor of Law.
Sandra Cortesi is a Project Fellow at the Berkman Center, responsible for coordinating research and educational initiatives. In addition to work on information quality and media literacy in the Youth and Media Project, she has worked on an exploratory study entitled “Working Towards a Deeper Understanding of Digital Safety for Children and Young People in Developing Nations,” and has helped develop curricula for schools. She has also been working for the Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. Sandra has a Masters in Psychology, with a specialization in Neuro-Psychology and Human-Computer Interaction, from the University of Basel.
Momin Malik is a research assistant for the Youth and Media Project. In addition to working on information quality and media literacy, he participates in carrying out behavioral studies. Momin has a BA from Harvard, where he studied the History of Science with a focus on mathematics.
Ashley Lee is a research assistant for the Youth and Media Project. She joined the project to pursue her research interest in online youth and social media. Ashley recently graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she focused her studies on designing and evaluating interactive networked environments and computer games for learning. Ashley also holds a BS in computer science from Stanford University and has worked in software development at Oracle and Microsoft Research.

Works Cited
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