You Can Handle the Truth: Learning about Fake News in the Library

You Can Handle the Truth: Learning about Fake News in the Library

February 27, 2018

In January, River Campus Libraries (RCL) hosted a special pop-up event dedicated to exploring the phenomenon of fake news. Organized by Robert Berkman, Business Librarian, and supported by RCL’s Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, and the Barbara J. Burger iZone, the event drew a significant crowd to Evans Lam Square. Designed as a mini conference, it consisted of information booths and included presentations by undergraduate and graduate students.

What inspired Berkman to organize the event was what he felt was a need to educate students and the University community on how to distinguish information from misinformation. Berkman, who worked as a journalist before he joined RCL, has become increasingly concerned with the manner in which our political reality has affected how information quality is evaluated. "As we have all come to realize, being misinformed can be dangerous," he remarks. "A democracy requires its members to be able to differentiate fact from fiction."

A library seems like a natural place for an event that focuses on how information is shared and assessed. "Librarians are neutral – they don’t have any biases toward any ideology apart from their commitment to teach people how to find the information they need," says Berkman. A patron’s political views, spiritual belief, or academic discipline do not matter when they ask a librarian for assistance. The role of the librarian is to guarantee that the information patrons seek is correct and accessible, all without value judgment.

"There really isn’t a better place to hold this kind of event than in Rush Rhees," says Hannah Cook '21, who was one of the student presenters at the event. "The library is the hub of learning at the University of Rochester, and learning is exactly what we need to do when it comes to tackling the challenges of fake news." In her presentation, Cook discussed the future of political bias in the media, and predicted that partisan and nonpartisan media outlets will balance each other as they continue to coexist.

Mark Volkin '21, who also presented at the event, agrees with Cook and thinks that the library is the most appropriate place to explore the issue of fake news. His presentation focused on the contribution of passive media consumption to the polarization of American society. "The most effective way to combat media polarization is to make viewers aware of it," he says. "By recognizing media biases, they might start thinking about what they’re seeing more critically."

Ultimately, educating individuals about how to distinguish real news from fake news, fact from fiction, should be an institutional effort, but the library has a special role in it. "It is impossible to teach all the skills required to assess the quality of information in one pop-up event," admits Berkman. “But what the library teaches is a certain attitude: we teach students that they always have to be aware of where the information they consume comes from – be it for a paper or when they read the news."


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