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Can Librarians Save Us from Fake News?

Libraries and colleges across the country are trying to educate people into being better, more discerning consumers of news.

Marinating in old-book smell, lungs filling slowly with invisible dust particles, the librarians of old were the keepers of knowledge. And their present-day counterparts, basking in the blue light of electronic screens, are no different. Trained to collect reading material from a spectrum of perspectives, librarians curate collections that offer the full scope of worldviews, veting and fact-checking along the way.

And now, with fabricated news stories going viral every day, right- or left-leaning news articles flippantly being labeled "wrong" or "fake" by anyone who disagrees with them, librarians are doing what they have always done: showing people how to find facts.

"We've had this role from, from forever," said Denise Raleigh, who heads the public relations and development department of the Gail Borden Public Library District in Illinois. "This issue coming to the forefront, it's an opportunity to remind people of how librarians are trained."

Most reference librarians hold a master of library and information science degree and have been taught to find vetted, accurate sources of information, said Raleigh.

The Gail Borden library put on a program to educate the community about fake news in late January. The panel discussion drew a crowd that filled the room, Raleigh said, and the recording made available online has garnered more than 1,100 spins so far.

"Have you guys heard how Tom Hanks was filming in New Zealand, and he was taking a break, walking around, and he was distracted and he fell off a 30-foot cliff?!" Margaret Peebles, the division chief of public services at the Gail Borden Public Library District, asked the audience. "That's Forrest Gump, you guys. And that's one fake news story that I did fall for, completely." Someone had walked into the library and told her that story. She believed it.

Peebles stressed the importance of digital literacy and critical thinking—skills that have been important for far longer than this past election cycle. In other words, take this age-old journalism adage to heart: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

Listen to this VICE News Tonight interview with a fake news producer: 

Howard Schneider, a string bean of a man who speaks emphatically with his hands, has been championing the news literacy cause since 2007, when he founded the Center for News Literacy at New York's Stony Brook University, where he's the dean of the journalism school.

"Everybody's kind of discovered this as a phenomenon," said Schneider. "It's been a problem for a while."

Part of the problem, said Schneider, is the societal confusion about what "fake news" really is. By narrow definition, "fake news" is "news that is totally fabricated, that has no basis in reality," he said; but the broader, more accurate, definition includes partially fabricated or misleading information.

"We are living in the midst of a sea of information that includes half-truths, manipulated information, opinion and advertising masquerading as news," Schneider said. "Often, this information has some basis in reality, but has been distorted in a way that is totally misleading."

Fake news, he explained, is "news that has no basis in reality"—for instance, "the guy who goes to shoot up the pizzeria in Washington based on the notion that Hillary Clinton and her friends are running some kind of sex ring in there with children," or the false rumor that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president.

These are hoaxes, misinformation, lies. It's a category distinct from ordinary articles that have incidental untruths in them.

Fake news "is not journalism that changes over time; it's not journalism in which a reporter conveys wrong information because sources have given that reporter wrong information; none of that is fake news," Schneider said. "That's the reality of imperfect journalism, day in and day out, trying to do the best it can." The distinction, Schneider added, is intent. When a news outlet or reporter sets out to purposefully deceive or mislead, or knowingly publishes fabricated information, that is fake news.

That line isn't always so bright and clear. Earlier this month, Harvard University's library published an online guide to fake news, misinformation, and propaganda; it may have been well-intentioned but was widely derided because it directed readers to a list of "fake" news sites that included obviously satirical sites like the Onion and mainstream conservative sites like National Review.

"People in a very cynical way are using this term now to identify anything that they don't like or don't agree with, and that's creating the misimpression that there's a lot of fake news," Schneider said. "And that's not the case."

Mostly, librarians are fighting fake news with education. Schneider and the journalism school are partnering with the university's library to create a news and information workshop or tutorial. At the University of Michigan, a group of librarians have developed a "Fake News, Lies, and Propaganda" course for fall 2017.

"For us as librarians, this is exactly what we do," said Doreen Bradley, one of the librarians who helped with the course proposal. "We collect everything, whether we agree with that perspective or not."

What's the curriculum like for a fake news class? The Michigan librarians are not entirely sure yet. Ideally, students will learn to understand their own perspectives and realize no source or individual is completely objective. Instructors will also urge students to avoid contributing to the spread of fake news by pausing to verify information before sharing an article on social media, Bradley said. 

Many libraries are now directly participating in curriculum development, said Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Association (ALA). Others have added "fake news" resources to their websites to teach news consumers to be more discerning.

"This is in our wheelhouse, this is what we've always done," Todaro said. "And we call it a variety of things—information literacy, information fluency."

Todaro often directs news consumers to the CRAAP test, a list of criteria put out by the Meriam Library at California State University, Chico. The test includes a list of several questions to ask in each of five categories: currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose.

She also suggests people view an online guide with more than 2,000 pages of vetted information about fake news, or "alternative truth," and to her own library's website, which offers a tutorial on fake news.

"It's a very sad time," Todaro said. But, it's also "an incredible opportunity" for libraries to remind the community of one of their primary functions.

The ALA has incorporated the issue into its Libraries Transform marketing campaign. There are billboards; there are banners that say, "Because fake news has real consequences," and an imminent celebrity campaign with the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker.

There are other, more personal means of outreach too: When a librarian is asked to speak to an algebra class today about online mathematics resources, that librarian will start by discussing the issue of "fake news" and misinformation, according to Todaro.

"We're going to lead with that now," she said.

The same goes for science classes. One of the first post-election calls Todaro's library received was from the chemistry faculty, who requested that a librarian speak to higher-level chemistry classes about archiving the scientific information that is disappearing from government websites.

"They're scrambling," Todaro said, of the research community as it watches scientific data disappear from government websites. "These are the data that researchers all over the world use."

As Raleigh of the Illinois library put it, the fake news hoopla is "a wake-up call."

"When you think of the evolution of fakeness, and how it can grip us," Raleigh said, "if we aren't seeking the truth, I think the consequences could be dire."

Arielle Dollinger is a New York-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Forbes.com, Newsday, Long Islander Newspapers, the Arizona Daily Star, and Long Island Pulse. Follow her on Twitter.