Needle in a Haystack: Digital Literacy in the Age of Infinite Information

When I meet a group of students—whether they are honors scholars from across the disciplines at an Ivy League college, high school students in an after-school program, college-bound high school seniors, public university freshmen, or learners anywhere on the educational spectrum in terms of geography, accomplishments, and the advantages or disadvantages they’ve experienced—I sometimes ask them to raise their hands and keep them raised if they consider themselves to be publishers.

Usually only a small minority of students in the audience will raise their hands.

I will then ask how many of the remaining majority have ever posted anything on Facebook and ask those students to raise their hands and keep their hands raised. “Now, who has ever tweeted? Who has ever posted anything on YouTube? Who has ever sent a group email?” By this time, everyone in the room has his or her hand raised.

“Guess what. You’re all publishers!”

The point is that whether we realize it or not, because of our use of social media and online participation, we are all publishers. Our publishing role pervades our academic, social, professional, and civic engagement and is essential to our individual success and also our contributing to an informed, empowered society.

Successful publishers need to know how to access information, how to assess the quality of information, and how to decide what to publish. They need to understand the relationship between what they publish and their own reputations and credibility, including the importance of originality, accuracy, and awareness of conflicts of interest and disclosure issues. They need to understand publishing-related laws including those concerning defamation, copyright infringement, and privacy.

The first challenge—accessing information—may sound easy thanks to the Internet. Well, yes and no.

We can access more information each day than was ever available to our predecessors throughout human history. We all know that. But what of the quality of that information? A needle in a haystack analogy is often used in connection with accessing online information. I’ll pose the question this way: If finding a needle in a haystack is daunting, how about finding a useful needle among a million haystacks full of assorted debris?

For educators and for all of us, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the needles are there, more than ever before, and that there are wonderful precision search tools to find them. The bad news is that most educators are not informed themselves about the search tools available and do not know how to teach high quality search strategies and that most students simply are not being adequately educated about how to find information online.

When they are being taught online search—in my own experience in meeting with high school and college students from New Mexico to New York—the information being conveyed is frequently wrong. Students tell me they are still being told that Wikipedia is a “bad” source. They are being told that you can trust information on a site ending in .edu but not .com. Many say they believe the first several hits resulting from a Google search are the best sources. All of these generalizations are useless and misleading and confusing, and, well, wrong.

The need for education on search is pervasive.

Google does no verification, confirmed Daniel Russell, Google’s Uber Tech Lead for Search Quality & User Happiness, during an April 24, 2014 visit to Baruch College. “We do no vetting—none,” he said.1

What’s true of Google is generally true of all the Internet’s vast pipelines and networks of information, from YouTube to Twitter to Facebook, etc.

With almost infinite information available online from literally millions of sources in a vast, ever-expanding universe of falsity, marketing, propaganda, hype, carefully collected data, images, videos, journalism of all qualities, research, primary and secondary and specious sources, etc., the onus is on us all to verify the information we encounter and share and publish online.

Just as the tools journalists have always needed in publishing are now essential for everybody, the tools journalists traditionally have needed in their role in ferreting out and verifying sources and information are tools that everyone needs if they are to succeed. The vitality of our society depends upon our ability to provide all of these “journalism” tools to the general public.

In order to meet that challenge, our educational institutions need to change. But change is frustratingly slow.

For starters, journalism skills are seldom taught in grade schools or libraries or even many colleges and universities, and most educational institutions are not equipped to teach these now critical skills. Our educational institutions, from grade schools to libraries to universities, traditionally pre-select “worthy” information that is then made available to students. So we have textbooks, academic journals and articles, newspapers and magazines and other periodicals, assigned readings, casebooks, etc.

The problem is that perhaps the majority of people now, if they wish to find out about something, don’t begin their search in the library or in consultation with a professor who is an expert in a given field. From high school students on up—and increasingly even for younger students—we go online to search for information.

Whenever I ask students (generally high school and college undergraduate students) how they find information, the majority will reply that they use Google. Others will say they find information on YouTube or Twitter, or they “ask Siri.”

Wait a minute. Back up. If the starting point for the majority of educational institutions instructing students of all levels is pre-vetted, carefully selected curriculum and course materials, how are students gaining the ability to search for and assess and verify the information surrounding them in their real world contexts?

The sad truth is that, by and large, educational institutions from elementary schools on up have not geared up to instruct students for the world we live in now or for the future.

There are some notable exceptions and important initiatives underway that I have observed in my collaboration with The Berkman Center, The McCormick Foundation, The Poynter Institute, The Student Press Law Center, Google, Stanford University, and many others to develop and amplify teaching tools that will help us on our way to renovating education and educating an informed, engaged, empowered generation of students.

I’ve had the good fortune of getting to know Esther Wojcicki, a Palo Alto High School teacher who runs what surely is one of the most exciting and effective scholastic journalism programs in the world. In Lakeland School District, students district-wide benefit from the expertise of a computer technology educator who encourages teachers at all grade levels to integrate digital literacy instruction into their classrooms. At a public high school on Staten Island, students are fortunate to have a teacher devoted to journalism education. There are excellent after-school programs reaching students in cities across the country that are exploring news and digital literacy education. There is Stony Brook University, which, along with the News Literacy Project, thanks to early grants from the Knight Foundation, gave birth to the news literacy movement. Stony Brook has developed a curriculum, educates undergraduates on news literacy, and teaches teachers to teach news literacy. The News Literacy Project’s activities include bringing professional journalists into high school classrooms to provide news literacy education. (Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation played a key role in inspiring the “news literacy” movement and providing early major support for both Stony Brook’s News Literacy Center and Investigative Journalist Alan Miller’s News Literacy Project.)

While these efforts are making important inroads, the vast majority of students nationwide do not have access to these or similar programs.

If anything, at the grade-school level, there are fewer student newspapers and hence fewer newspaper advisors who ordinarily would be among the best equipped to teach journalism skills and news literacy. At a time when (I submit) all students need education in journalism basics, journalism education is in decline. At the college level, educators sometimes seem to be hyper-aware of the long decline in print newspapers and incorrectly extrapolate a declining need for journalism education rather than being fully cognizant of the implications of the Internet and the corresponding expanded need for journalistic reporting and publishing education across majors and across the curriculum to empower all students with twenty-first century skills.

While there is room in core curricula for traditional disciplines, colleges and universities are slow to change and faculty departments that have courses or preference in their schools’ core curricula or among distribution requirements can be reluctant to make room for anything new, so news literacy and journalism education, even when faculty resources are available, often are not adequately acknowledged as essential to education across majors.

To recap on teaching resources: Most schools do not have faculty members with expertise in teaching journalism or anything resembling news or digital literacy or online search. Faculty members for the most part do not want to teach what they do not know. Where journalism expertise does exist, partly because journalism is not a classical academic discipline with a firm place in a liberal arts curriculum, journalism teachers and professors generally are not viewed by their colleagues in other departments as teaching skills as essential as reading, writing, and mathematics.

The result is that students are still being taught out of textbooks and with assigned course readings or pre-vetted databases of material (handed pre-selected information instead of being taught to search and navigate what’s actually out there), often given confusing, disempowering misinformation about online information platforms and search strategies, and ill-prepared to learn, participate, and thrive in the world of information that surrounds us. To use a food analogy, it’s sort of like teaching someone to forage for food necessary for survival by serving them gourmet meals. It doesn’t work. (See Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet for a rich discussion of information consumption.) At some level, and perhaps at every level, there needs to be education about how to distinguish nutritious edible foods from toxic ones, and—to move from accessing information to publishing—how to prepare and serve quality meals as opposed to garbage.

Bottom Line: There is a huge unaddressed gap between the education most students are receiving and what they need. There is a widespread failure to recognize the role of journalism and online search and news literacy education in informing all students who now need to be their own searchers, finders, assessors, verifiers, and publishers of information. Students simply aren’t being prepared for the challenges and opportunities of our Internet Age.

I hope that will change. I hope the many worthy initiatives underway will flourish. I hope educational institutions will come to value and find a place for journalism and news and digital literacy education for all students. I hope teachers across disciplines will be taught how to teach online search, informational quality assessment and publishing basics to their students. That way, the students can be successful, regardless of their discipline or profession, and we can assure ourselves of an informed civically engaged population capable of holding government officials accountable, which is essential to any free society.


Notes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Daniel Russell, responding to question posed by author during a workshop at Baruch College, April 24, 2014.
Geanne Perlman Rosenberg

About Geanne Perlman Rosenberg

Geanne Perlman Rosenberg is a Professor and Director of the Harnisch Journalism Projects at City University of New York's Baruch College, a Faculty Associate at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Student Press Law Center. A journalist and attorney, Rosenberg has worked as the principal investigator of Harnisch Foundation, McCormick Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Carnegie Corporation and David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation-funded journalism projects relating to media law, journalism education, youth empowerment, and news and digital literacy education.

One Response to Needle in a Haystack: Digital Literacy in the Age of Infinite Information

  1. Alan July 14, 2014 at 10:27 pm #

    Unless I’m reading the article incorrectly, the author’s fear is that more students are gathering their news and information from online sources and no longer sourcing traditional news outlets. These students aren’t searching for the ‘right’ information, so therefore the solution is to have more trained journalists in schools or bring in professional journalists to teach news literacy.
    What’s wrong with students starting online to search for information? Not every student has immediate access to a library or an expert. I agree that digital literacy is an urgent need in classrooms and one that schools should be investing in, from professional development to integrating technology into existing curricula.
    However, it seems the real fear of the author, one she expects news and digital literacies to correct, is young peoples’ abandonment of traditional journalism. This may or may not be a terrible thing, but the one aspect of news literacy the author fails to address is being critical of journalism and news media as profit-driven industries, that publish products constructed by individuals with inherent biases within a hierarchical corporate system, and often funded by advertising monies. This is a component of news literacy just as important as providing students with the traditional journalism ‘tools’ that author mentions in her article.
    Are the professional journalists coming into these classrooms providing this type of information to students? Are the students even being allowed to question the news industry in these classrooms?

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