My public library system was approached by NewsGuard last summer with a solution to help citizens better understand the media sources they consume. Trying to stem the tide of misleading web content feels like an insurmountable task, until you remember libraries have been helping people make sense of mountains of information since, well, the beginning of time. Still, the rollout of this service raised some eyebrows from concerned citizens who worried we were heading down a slippery slope of censorship and trolls who worried their content was going to be labeled “fake news.”
Literacy is at the core of what we do at the library, and so is media literacy — specifically the “ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media in a variety of forms.” This is a role the library has traditionally played with books, magazines, movies, and so on. Following Mozilla’s Web Literacy standards, our system has been educating staff and the community around digital citizenship and reading, writing and participating on the web. We have run events showing how you can use X-Ray Goggles to copy a website or a social media post and modify the text and images to create fake news. We use products like Lightbeam to show how third-party tracking works and can impact your digital footprint. With these literacy trainings and reading literacy, we’ve given our staff — and the communities we serve — the tools they need to be active engaged citizens. The NewsGuard browser plug-in is an extension of that work; giving us yet another tool in the toolbox to help our communities navigate and participate in an increasingly complex media landscape.
We didn’t go into this project blindly without doing our due diligence. After all, we’re librarians. In our deliberations and discussions, we learned how NewsGuard is “powered by a team of trained journalists and experienced editors who rate and review thousands of news and information websites based on nine journalistic criteria, like whether the site regularly publishes false content, reveals conflicts of interest, discloses financing, or publicly corrects reporting errors.” They rely on humans to make decisions about the reliability of resources — just like people have relied on librarians to help them navigate a sometimes-overwhelming amount of information and options. They use humans, because — like libraries — they believe this kind of work should be done with transparency and accountability. You can read more about the organization and their work here.
Our library wants to emphasize a distinction between media literacy and censorship. Media literacy means knowing how to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media. Censorship is determining what people are or are not allowed to access or view. The NewsGuard shield that appears next to a search result or social media post does not stop a customer from visiting the link. Instead, it informs them about the credibility of the organization that generated that link.
When Toledo Lucas County Public Library adopted its strategic plan in 2016, one of the core areas of focus for us was supporting essential literacies — plural. From our plan, “the Library is unique in that it often provides people with their first introduction to a range of literacies that can help them live fulfilling lives and be strong contributors to communities across Toledo and Lucas County. This is true, whether people are applying for a job online, raising children, learning how to use the newest device, or creating their first podcast, musical recording, or short film. With virtually boundless access to the world through high speed Internet, the Library is unrivaled in its ability to help people find things that enrich their lives.”
Media literacy is at the core of the public library’s business, and we do ourselves and our communities a disservice if we don’t explore any resource that can help us do our job more effectively. It’s our hope that NewsGuard will do just that, and we’re always exploring other new opportunities.