Studies of research: Reporting in the “Post-Truth” Era

I’ve mentioned before that one of the cool things about the study of research is that it’s already out there, in so many forms and in so many fields (not just library and information science!), even if that’s not what the researchers doing this work would necessarily call it. I saw a lot of examples of this at the ACRL 2019 Conference and I wanted to spend some time here taking a closer look at a few of them.

So let’s take a closer look at “Reporting in the ‘Post-Truth’ Era: Uncovering the Research Behaviors of Journalism Students, Practitioners, and Faculty” by Katherine E. Boss et al.

What it’s about

Boss and her co-authors conducted 50 interviews with journalism students, journalism educators and practitioners to shed light on the information-seeking behaviors that are specific to the journalism field. Understanding how journalists (and aspiring journalists) conduct research has grown increasingly important as the post-truth era has eroded trust in the media. The researchers set out to discover the differences in knowledge and behavior between novice journalists and expert journalists.

 

Ugh, post-truth

In the last few years, the information literacy community has really latched on to the issues of fake news and the post-truth era. It’s easy to see why. The influence of fake news looks very much like a failure of information literacy. This is a chance for conversations about IL to enter the mainstream and for librarians who have been struggling to prove the value of IL to outside stakeholders for so long to finally make the case. As a result, I have sat through many, many conference presentations that claim that the key to solving fake news is to simply teach people some version of the CRAAP test.

I have problems with this, ones that are probably better discussed in a different post(1). The key point here is that seeing buzzwords like “fake news” and “post-truth” in a library-related headline tends to set my teeth on edge. So I dragged my feet a little on actually sitting down and reading Boss et al.’s work.

I wish I hadn’t. First, because even though the issue of the post-truth era certainly informs their research, the paper is not intended to suggest that the path to breaking free from the post-truth trap is paved in IL. Second, because what the article is actually about is the research behaviors of journalists and how they are different from the more general understanding of how research works, as reflected in our definitions on information literacy.

In short, this is so exactly what I have been trying to talk about all along.

 

The contextual limits of the Framework

What I love about this article is that the authors don’t just explore the information behaviors of journalists. They take what they learn and translate it through the Framework, picking out how the threshold concepts identified in the Framework manifest in a journalistic context. They make excellent cases for what they find but in the end they make it clear that it’s not a perfect fit.

The authors identify a number of reasons for why this is. The one that jumped out at me is that the Framework assumes that information comes in the form documents. Journalists work with documents in the form of public records and other primary sources. They also do secondary research to help them form interview questions. But, as the authors point out, in-person interviews and statements play a huge role in the type of research that journalists do. The Framework does not account for the fact that, in some contexts, information is not going to come from documents but from people.

Why is this? As Nancy Foasberg(2) said, the Framework insists on the importance of context to the research process…but it still reflects a very academic/scholarly understanding of what research is. The Framework talks about documents because academic/scholarly researchers work with documents. On the one hand, this makes sense because the Framework is, after all, a product of the Association of College & Research Libraries. On the other, it shows what a blind spot information literacy practitioners have when it comes to our understanding of research. We claim that information literacy is important beyond the academic environment but we keep writing documents that don’t quite reflect this.

 

What is the solution?

For all that the Standards tried to be universal, there were many disciplines in which they were not easily applicable. The solution was for each discipline to create its own set of Standards. Boss et al. stop short of suggesting doing the same thing for the Framework, even as they acknowledge the tensions and frustrations of translating the Framework to a discipline-specific research context.

As librarians and scholars, we might have to ask ourselves if it’s even possible to write a document about information literacy that is universally applicable across research contexts. It might be, but our understanding of what research is needs to be a lot broader.

In the meantime, the Framework claims to be a living document. The six threshold concepts we see are not meant to be the be-all and end-all of anything. If they were, that probably would not say good things about information literacy. Consider that in coming up with threshold concepts related to writing studies, Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle and their collaborators came up with over 40 (plus a metaconcept).

So if there’s room in the Framework to add more, maybe we should start doing it so that we can better address the role of context in the research process. Of course, that might frighten a lot of IL instructors because we place so much pressure on ourselves to incorporate all of the IL threshold concepts into our teaching (and then assessing ourselves on how successful we were). We’d really need to let go of the idea that the Framework is meant to be prescriptive but this actually might better reflect the spirit of the threshold concept. After all, no writing instructor is going to be expected to incorporate all 40+ threshold concepts into their own teaching.

 

A study of research

I’ve gotten away from Boss et al.’s work a little here but let me say again how valuable it is in showing the importance of context to the research process and the limitations of documents like the Framework in that respect. The authors take journalists as their objects of study but it’s worth taking what they’ve done and applying it to other professions as well. After all, the way a journalist does research is not going to be the same as the way a lawyer does research or a teapot marketing executive does research or a fiction writer does research.

Because when it comes to research, context matters.

*

  • To be clear, I don’t think this approach is inherently bad or wrong or that we shouldn’t do it at all or ever. I just think it’s an oversimplification of a very complicated issue.
  • Nancy M. Foasberg, “From Standards to Frameworks for IL: How the ACRL Framework Addresses Critiques of the Standards,” portal: Libraries and the Academy 15 no. 4 (2015): 708

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