Truth, truthiness, triangulation and the librarian way: A news literacy toolkit for a “post-truth” world

We were guaranteed a free press,  We were not guaranteed a neutral or a true press. We can celebrate the journalistic freedom to publish without interference from the state.  We can also celebrate our freedom to share multiple stories through multiple lenses. But it has always been up to the reader or viewer to make […]

truthometerWe were guaranteed a free press,  We were not guaranteed a neutral or a true press. We can celebrate the journalistic freedom to publish without interference from the state.  We can also celebrate our freedom to share multiple stories through multiple lenses.

But it has always been up to the reader or viewer to make the reliability and credibility decisions.

New literacy is complicated. In our attempts to discern truth, we are confounded by a 24/7 news cycle. News hits us across media platforms and devices, in a landscape populated by all degrees of professional journalists and citizen journalists and satirists and hoaxers and folks paid or personally moved to write intentionally fake news. All of this is compounded by the glories and the drawbacks of user-generated content, citizen journalism, and a world of new news choices. Even news that is vetted by editors and publishers sometimes emerges from that process a bit processed and leaning in a particular direction. Professional journalists themselves face new practical and ethical challenges relating to anonymity, privacy and safety, as well as reliability in their attempts to verify sources of breaking news from social media and user generated content in all media formats.  (The Verification Handbooks are a wonderful lens into this complicated process.)

On news literacy

In its glossary, Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy defines news literacy as:

The ability to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports, whether they come via print, television or the Internet.

Our kids need new types of filters. Beyond larger notions of information literacy, I see the case for a specific focus on news literacy. Not as a lesson of good vs. bad. Not as an attempt to pitch traditional media against social media or peer review against popular publication.  Not through the examination of hoaky hoax sites. And certainly not as a one-of, checklist type of lesson for a 9th grade social studies teacher in September.

We need to teach the important lessons of everyday civics for new consumption and production landscapes. These lessons involve sustained critical thinking, a practice to engage in regularly as we read and view and inquire with learners of all ages acrosscreen-shot-2016-11-25-at-3-37-32-pms the disciplines.

A recent Stanford Graduate School of Education report, Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Literacy assessed of the news literacy of students from middle school through college.

Students were asked to perform such tasks as: determine the trustworthiness of tweets, distinguish between news articles and opinion columns, identify ads on a news website, compare and evaluate posts from a newspaper’s comment section, identify the blue checkmark that distinguishes a verified Facebook account from a fake one, consider the relative strength of evidence presented by two posters in a Facebook exchange, decide whether or not to trust a photo on a photo-sharing website, determine whether a website can be trusted in an open web search, search to verify a claim about a controversial issue, assess the reliability of a partisan website, identify the strengths and weaknesses of an online video. (p. 6)  (Note: Most of these tasks could authentically be taught in our libraries during the natural course of any inquiry project.)

The Executive Summary shared disturbing results:

By high school, we would hope that students reading about gun laws would notice that a chart came from a gun owners’ political action committee. And, in 2016, we would hope college students, who spend hours each day online, would look beyond a .org URL and ask who’s behind a site that presents only one side of a contentious issue. But in every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation . . .
Never have we had so much information at our fingertips. Whether this bounty will make us smarter and better informed or more ignorant and narrow-minded will depend on our awareness of this problem and our educational response to it. At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.  (pp. 5-6)

I see a serious need for librarians to build a few seaworthy arks from the news media flood to aid students in discerning credibility, reliability, and bias in context of their information needs and the context of the text itself.  I can see us introducing the broad notion of triangulation to children for whom the word may be difficult to say.

What’s going on?

Fake news

In the weeks leading up to the election we were drawn to stories about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump and WikiLeaks’ confirmation that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS.

Fake news is not new. But its potential for virality is and our awareness of it is newly awakened. Some suggested it played a role in the outcome of the election.  Google and Facebook both announced that they would try to eliminate fake news from appearing in their result lists and newsfeeds by blocking fake news sources from using their ad networks.

And fake news is but one flavor of news that is less than accurate. It is but one bucket into which readers and viewers should sort types of truthiness.  

Fake news itself comes in a variety of flavors:

  • Pure fake news sites use fabricated stories to lure traffic, encourage clicks (click bait), influence or profit using intentionally deceptive, but highly intriguing, often sensational information.
  • Hoax sites also share false information with the intention to trick readers/viewers
  • Satirical sites present news with a comical, often exaggerated spin
  • Born digital images and edited images alter and often misrepresent visual reality

In addition, sometimes journalists just get things wrong. Their sources they choose to interview may not offer truth or a full picture. Stories reported in process lack the wisdom of hindsight and may be missing full context.

Post-truth or truthiness

Oxford Dictionaries recently announced post-truth as its 2016 international Word of the Year. Oxford defines the word as relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

It is well worth noting that the concept is not new. Oxford traces post-truth’s history from a peripheral term simmering for at least a decade to its dramatic spike this year:screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-5-51-46-am in the context of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the presidential election in the US, and becoming associated overwhelmingly with a particular noun, in the phrase “post-truth politics.”

Back in 2005, Stephen Colbert introduced the Word truthiness, now defined by Wikipedia as a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.


While we need to reject the notion of relying solely on from-the-gut verification systems, it is important to recognize that we are not always looking at a binary situation.

Credibility decisions are complicated. Most news is not simply fake or true. News from traditional sources can be suspect as well. Professional journalists engage in rigorous fact-checking and adhere to sets of professional ethics, but they are not entirely immune to bias or agenda or the pressures of a deadline. A single story may tell a part of a larger story at the moment of its publishing. Of course, traditional newspapers feature writing of all sorts–straight reporting, editorials, features, columns, advertisements and comments in their digital versions. Several traditional news sources are to various degrees either right or left leaning. While some admit their bias, others do not.

It is impossible to dismiss the complication that our political news consumption habits have shifted. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Reddit and Tumblr played huge roles in disseminating political information during the past election season. A May 2016 Pew Research Center study found that a majority of U.S. adults – 62% – get news on social media, and 18% do so often.  In terms of the total population, this translates to social media news reaching 67% of U.S. adults. The two-thirds of Facebook users who get news there, then, amount to 44% of the general population. Consider this results of this report in the context of with the decline of the newspaper industry also documented by recent Pew Research Center data.

Some Rules of thumb:

Check About and About me pages: Clicking on or investigate authors names to consider their credentials in context should be a regular part of the research journey.

Interrogate urls: We see quite a bit of domain manipulation these days. For instance, what looks like an .edu domain, followed by .co or “lo” is likely a fake or deceptive site.  If you are you seeing a slightly variant version of a well-known url, do a little investigating.

Suspect the sensational: When we see something posted that looks sensational, it is important to be skeptical. Exaggerated and provocative headlines with excessive use of capital letters or emotional language are serious red flags.

Go back to the source: When an article mentions a study, if you can, go directly to the sourceand check its bona fides as well.

Think outside the reliability box: The old checklist-type tools we used to evaluate websites do not necessarily work. ACRL’s Framework reminds us that the notion of reliability can be fluid. Experts know how to seek authoritative voices but also recognize that unlikely voices can be authoritative, depending on need.  On Twitter’s 10th birthday this year, Poynter, the respected journalism portal, listed 10 Twitter How Tos–guides for using Twitter for journalism from its own archive. Students can benefit from these tips too.

Triangulate: Try to verify the information in multiple sources, including traditional media and library databases. You can begin to rule out the hoaxes and by checking out sites like the nonprofit, nonpartisan, or popular sites like Snopes or Hoax-Slayer.

What exactly are you reading?: Even when you find yourself in a traditional news site, identify what type of writing you are reading. Is it news reporting, or a feature story, or an editorial, or work by a guest blogger, or a review, or an op-ed or a disguised ad, or a comment?

Check your own search attitude and biases: Is your search language biased in any way?  Are you paying more attention to the information that confirms your own beliefs and ignoring evidence that does not?

Use a little energy: Have you simply satisficed or have you done your due diligence in seeking and validating the best possible sources across media sources?

Stop before you forward (or use): When you see a widely shared or forwarded link, be suspicious of a hoax or a fake story.  Can you verify the information outside of the social media platform on which you discovered it?

Be suspicious of pictures!: Not all photographs tell truth or unfiltered truth. Images are normally edited or process, but sometimes they are digitally manipulated. Some are born digital. A Google reverse image search can help discover the source of an image and its possible variations.

Remember Time Magazine’s darkening of the OJ mugshot?

Remember Sandy?

Some news literacy vocabulary to introduce in talking about credibility:

  • confirmation bias: the tendency to believe information is credible if it conforms to the reader’s/viewer’s existing belief system or not credible if it does not conform
  • content farm or content mill: a company that employs a staff of freelance writers to create content designed to satisfy search engine retrieval algorithms with the goal of attracting views and advertising revenue.
  • echo chamber: “In news media an echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.” (Wikipedia)
  • fact checking: the act of verifying assertions either prior to publication or after dissemination of the content
  • filter bubble: When search tools present with the stories we are likely to click on or share based on our past activity, potentially affirming our biases, we need may be experiencing what Eli Pariser calls a filter bubble,
  • herding phenomenon: as more journalists begin to cover a story, even more journalists are likely to join the herd, imitating the angle the story initially took rather than developing alternate or original approaches or angles.
  • native advertising: paid, sponsored content designed to look like the legitimate content produced by the media outlet
  • satisficing: a portmanteau of the words satisfy and suffice introduced by Herbert Simon in 1956 to refer to the tendency of people, bounded by time limitations, to select good enough information over optimal information
  • triangulation or cross verification: Researchers establish validity by using several research methods and by analyzing and examining multiple perspectives and sources in the hope that diverse viewpoints will can shed greater light on a topic.
  • virality: the rapid circulation of media from one user to another.  When we forward sensational stories, often from social media without checking their credibility in other sources, we increase their virality.

Resources for a post truth teaching toolkit:

Resources for building a news literacy toolkit

  • Annenberg Public Policy Center’s nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. Check out the post That Chain E-Mail Your Friend Sent to You is (Likely) Bogus. Seriously, for its Key Characteristics of Bogusness and the Viral Spiral page for claims previously checked
  • Washington Post’s Fact Checker: The purpose of this Web site, and an accompanying column in the Sunday print edition of The Washington Post, is to “truth squad” the statements of political figures regarding issues of great importance, be they national, international or local.
  • a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics, run by editors and reporters from the Tampa Bay Times. (Note: I discovered their truth-o-meter after I created the little image for this post.)
  • Snopes: Since way back in the 90s, Snopes has been dispelling urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.
  • Hoax-Slayer: Australian Brett Christensen has been debunking email and social media hoaxes and spam since 2003
  • Craig Silverman’s BuzzFeed blog: The founding editor for BuzzFeed, Canada has been writing for many years for a variety of publications on media accuracy and verification issues.
  • Whois Lookup: This tool allows you to investigate the domain behind a website
  • CRAAP Test: Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose posted by the Meriam Library, California State University, Chico.
  • Kathy Schrock’s 5W’s of Website Evaluation
  • Does This Website Smell Funny to You?  Amy Gillespie’s FART test posted in Knowledge Quest will grab middle schoolers’ attention
  • Evaluating Sources Using the RADAR Framework: RADAR stands for relevance, authority, date, relevance, rationale.  Mandalios, J. (2013). RADAR: An approach for helping students evaluate Internet sources. Journal of Information Science, 39(4), 470-478.

Previous NeverEnding Search posts:

Other favorite resources:

Abilock, Debbie. (2012). True-or not?. Educational Leadership, 69(6), 70-74. Debbie shares her quick and dirty rules of thumb—digital reading strategies, in fact—that will intrigue students, spark their curiosity, and serve as sensible entry points to more sophisticated analyses of ideas.  Don’t miss the section on Weighing Truths in Wikipedia.

Stanford History Education Group. (2016). Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Literacy.

Stebbins, Leslie F. (2015). Finding Reliable Information Online: Adventures of an Information Sleuth. Rowman & Littlefield.

Stevenson, Sara. (2016). Information Literacy Lessons Crucial in a Post Truth World.  Knowledge Quest.

And finally . . .

Nurturing information literate, responsible active citizens is what librarians do. We teach students to be discerning consumers of information. We teach them to deconstruct media messages and construct their own messages. We teach them to interrogate their sources. As the landscape continues to shift, librarians must update our own skill sets and toolkits to guide students in navigating the very nuanced universe of news. We must also examine and recognize our own biases so that we are open to contrary and conflicting ideas. This is our banner to wave, our curriculum to co-teach.

Of course, following the paths I’ve described for critical vetting of the news is exhausting!  Welcome to the brave new world of truth.



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