The Ethics of Information Literacy

Yesterday, I caught Derek Thompson of The Atlantic discussing the problem of “fake news” on NPR’s Here and Now. It was all very sensible, of course. Thompson impressed upon the audience the importance of media literacy. He urged listeners to examine the provenance of the information they encounter. He also cited an article that appeared in US News & World Report about teaching high schoolers how to critically evaluate online information. The article, drawing on the advice of teachers, presented three keys: 1. Teach teens to question the source, 2. Help students identify credible sources, and 3. Give students regular opportunities to practice vetting information.

This is all fine. I suspect the problem is not limited to teens–an older cohort appears just as susceptible, if not more so, to “fake news”– but whatever the case, I spend a good deal of time in my classes doing something like what Thompson recommended. In fact, on more than one occasion, I’ve claimed that among the most important skills teachers can impart to students is the ability to discern the credible from the incredible and the serious from the frivolous. (I suspect the latter distinction is the more important and the more challenging to make.)

But we mustn’t fall into the trap of believing that this is simply a problem of the intellect to be solved with a few pointers and a handful of strategies. There is an ethical dimension to the problem as well because desire and virtue bear upon knowing and understanding. Thompson himself alludes to this ethical dimension, but he speaks of it mostly in the language of cognitive psychology–it is the problem of confirmation bias. This is a useful, but perhaps too narrow way of understanding the problem. However we frame it though, the key is this: We must learn to question more than our sources, we must also question ourselves.

I suggest a list of three questions for students, and by implication all of us, to consider. The first two are of the standard sort: 1. Who wrote this? and 2. Why should I trust them?

It would be foolish, in my view, to pretend that any of us can be independent arbiters of the truthfulness of claims made in every discipline or field of knowledge. It is unreasonable to expect that we would all become experts in every field about which we might be expected to have an informed opinion. Consequently, it is better to frame critical examination of sources as a matter of trustworthiness. Can I determine whether or not I have cause to trust the author or the organization that has produced the information I am evaluating? Of course, trustworthiness does not entail truthfulness or accuracy. When trustworthy sources conflict, for instance, we may need to make a judgment call or we might find ourselves unable to arbitrate the competing claims. It inevitably gets complicated.

The third question, however, gets at the ethical dimension: 3. Do I want this to be true?

This question is intended as a diagnostic tool. The goal is to reveal, so far as we might become self-aware about such things, our biases and sympathies. There are three possible answers: yes, no, and I don’t care. In each case, a challenge to discernment is entailed. If I want something to be true, and there may be various reasons for this, then I need to do my best to reposition myself as a skeptical critic. If I do not want something to be true, then I need to do my best to reposition myself as a sympathetic advocate. A measure of humility and courage are required in each case.

If I do not care, then there is another sort of problem to overcome. In this case, I may be led astray by a lack of care. I may believe what I first encounter because I am not sufficiently motivated to press further. Whereas it is something like passion or pride that we must guard against when we want to believe or disbelieve a claim, apathy is the problem here.

When I have taught classes on ethics, it has seemed to me that the critical question is not, as it is often assumed to be, “What is the right thing to do?” Rather, the critical question is this: “Why should someone desire to learn what is right and then do it?”

Likewise with the problem of information literacy. It is one thing to be presented with a set of skills and strategies to make us more discerning and critical. It is another, more important thing, to care about the truth at all, to care more about the truth than about being right.

In short, the business of teaching media literacy or critical thinking skills amounts to a kind of moral education. In a characteristically elaborate footnote in “Authority and American Usage,” David Foster Wallace got at this point, although from the perspective of the writer. In the body of his essay, Wallace writes,  “the error that Freshman Composition classes spend all semester trying to keep kids from making—the error of presuming the very audience-agreement that it is really their rhetorical job to earn.” The footnote to this sentence adds the following, emphasis mine:

Helping them eliminate the error involves drumming into student writers two big injunctions: (1) Do not presume that the reader can read your mind — anything you want the reader to visualize or consider or conclude, you must provide; (2) Do not presume that the reader feels the same way that you do about a given experience or issue — your argument cannot just assume as true the very things you’re trying to argue for. Because (1) and (2) are so simple and obvious, it may surprise you to know that they are actually incredibly hard to get students to understand in such a way that the principles inform their writing. The reason for the difficulty is that, in the abstract, (1) and (2) are intellectual, whereas in practice they are more things of the spirit. The injunctions require of the student both the imagination to conceive of the reader as a separate human being and the empathy to realize that this separate person has preferences and confusions and beliefs of her own, p/c/b’s that are just as deserving of respectful consideration as the writer’s. More, (1) and (2) require of students the humility to distinguish between a universal truth (‘This is the way things are, and only an idiot would disagree’) and something that the writer merely opines (‘My reasons for recommending this are as follows:’) . . . . I therefore submit that the hoary cliché ‘Teaching the student to write is teaching the student to think’ sells the enterprise way short. Thinking isn’t even half of it.

I take Wallace’s counsel here to be, more or less, the mirror image of the counsel I’m offering to us as readers.

Finally, I should say that all of the preceding does not begin to touch on much of what we would also need to consider when we’re thinking about media literacy. Most of the above deals with the matter of evaluating content, which is obviously not unimportant, and textual content at that. However, media literacy in the fullest sense would also entail an understanding of more subtle effects arising from the nature of the various tools we use to communicate content, not to mention the economic and political factors conditioning the production and dissemination of information.

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