Ferreting out fact from rumor, uninformed opinion, and outright falsehood underpins the work of all types of libraries. As we continue to work in an information ecosystem undergoing explosive growth and publishing access by authorities of every degree of sophistication, taking time for regular fact checking awareness improves our capacity to distinguish what is from what might be.
Among the most compelling information literacy exercises of which I’m aware was developed more than a decade ago by the school library media teacher (degreed!) in a small and relatively isolated K-5 school. Each year there, each grade level received information learning scaffolded developmentally and occurring through the full term. For the kindergarteners, the teaching was presented by every adult on campus, whenever he or she was audience to any kindergartener’s declaration of any information: the prescriptive adult response, “How do you know that?” provided the pause we all need to reflect on whether a declaration is supportable by fact.
Of course, when it comes to a five-year-old, a typical response might be that she saw it happen or that her older sister told her so. Additional questions might be placed, depending on the matter at hand, to uncover the accuracy of her witnessing position or her sister’s motivation. Across time, the student could begin to notice she couldn’t really claim to have seen an event that had occured while she was in another room, or that her sister had a penchant for pulling her leg about school-related matters but not family ones.
What we can take away from this simple exercise, regardless of our age, is the benefit of taking a moment to reflect on whether what we are repeating is worthy of that repetition. If we din’t take that moment, how do we recognize when a visit to Snopes.com might be better than forwarding the “news” we’ve just received?
With increasing access to both big data and resources of open government data, our tools for fact checking also gain power and reach. Along with the utility of tools to ferret out the facts, we also need to notice when we are missing facts, or operating with assumptions. That’s when a fact checking check up can uncover a need to boost our assumption immunity.
The regime for fact checking health isn’t new-fangled at all. We can start with that same question posed to the kindergarteners–along with the other four every journalist in training learns:
- How do I know that?
- Who said it?
- Why was it said?
- When was that?
- Where was it occurring?
Such fact checking breaks can position how we move forward, and whether we can.