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March 2, 2017

Library Insider

Library insider

Fake news in the news

The phrase “fake news” seems to be part of nearly every conversation these days. Despite the term’s current high profile, however, the principles behind a lack of skills in evaluating the information we consume have been of concern to librarians for as long as there have been librarians.

There always has been fake news, information put out that either was deliberately false or intentionally misleading. It’s become a concern recently because the internet has made it exceptionally easy for misinformation to be created and widely distributed and harder to distinguish between the real and the fake.

Why do so many people believe fake news? Because of a lack of what librarians call information literacy skills, which help people to efficiently locate, accurately evaluate, effectively use and clearly communicate information in various formats.


What are these skills?
The first is the ability to understand the difference between popular, trade and scholarly content. Lots of web content with an aura of scholarship actually is either popular or completely incredible. Scholarly content is written by experts; other content may not be.

Second is the ability, especially relating to online resources, to look at clues that speak to the credibility of the source. Is the content signed and dated? Does the URL hold any clues? Is it a .com, .org, or edu? What can you glean about the parent source? Are other known mainstream sources reporting similar information?

This isn’t a problem only for the young, who haven’t yet developed these skills, or the old, for whom the internet may be a relatively new phenomenon, or for the less educated, who haven’t been exposed to academic rigor. Among the findings of a 2016 Stanford University study:

• Most college students didn’t suspect potential bias in a tweet from an activist group.

• Most Stanford students couldn’t identify the difference between a mainstream source and a fringe source.(


If you’re a faculty member who teaches, this probably isn’t news to you. You may have had students cite biased sources such as NRA press releases as if they’re objective facts.

A combination of factors has gotten us to this point. The internet has provided a platform for anyone with anything to say, regardless of their level of expertise or lack thereof. That platform is free, so there are no barriers to entry.

Also a factor is that many of us rely heavily on social media, which allows us to live in a completely homogeneous news environment if we so choose. Want to see news from the environmentalists’ perspective only? Social media can do that by helping you to limit your interactions to people and sources who share your point of view. Social media also makes it more difficult to evaluate and verify the original source of the information. There’s also the issue of false credibility: If an article in my feed was shared and liked thousands of times, it must be okay, right?


Studies that the University Library System (ULS) has conducted with Pitt’s regional campus students show: “There is a marked improvement in IL (information literacy) skills performance between University of Pittsburgh regional campuses freshman and senior student cohorts.” (See

So Pitt students’ information literacy skills do improve somewhat during the course of their studies here. But clearly, there is room for more improvement.

What can Pitt instructors do to help move the dial?

Information-seeking skills are best learned when embedded within assignments and disciplinary coursework. ULS librarians can help you design assignments and activities that blend information literacy within the learning outcomes intended for your students.

We can visit your class and tailor a session to the needs of your students, with an emphasis on library resources in your specific discipline. We also can do this virtually by creating a guide tailored to your course with some discussion about information literacy framed around your class assignments.

Finally, require your student to use the library’s resources.PITTCat+ connects them (and you) not only to books but to millions of articles in the journals and newspapers to which the library subscribes. In PITTCat+, there’s even a one-click way to filter out everything except scholarly and peer-reviewed content (Refine Your Search>Scholary and Peer-Review).

By improving our students’ information literacy skills, we can help to fight the battle against fake news.

Jeff Wisniewski is the web services and communications librarian for the University Library System.

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