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Journalism students and information competencies.


Higher education's commitment to developing information literacy competencies in all students raises particular opportunities and responsibilities for instructional librarians to partner with journalism programs. This paper presents the information needs of professional journalists within the framework of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Standards for Information Literacy Competencies, the need for librarians to advocate information literacy education for journalism students, and the importance of this instruction in preparing students for employment in journalism, and in contributing to an improvement in news media quality, and thereby the development of a better informed citizenry.


The Information Literacy Competencies Standards for Higher Education adopted in 2000 by the Association of College and Research (ACRL) identifies the development of information literacy in students as a central component in higher education's responsibility to prepare students for lifelong learning. The ACRL document notes that information literacy augments students' competencies in evaluating, managing, and using information, and hence is now considered by several regional and discipline-based accreditation associations as a key outcome for college students. (1)

If education for information competencies is necessary for all students in higher education, it is particularly crucial for students preparing for careers in journalism. Journalism itself is an important component of the information industry, drawing heavily on previously published information, as well as the gathering of new data to provide the public with the production of new information (news).The proliferation of electronic resources for researchers, especially the World Wide Web, signals new challenges and responsibilities for instructional librarians in partnering with journalism programs at both undergraduate and graduate levels. While there is a tendency to view information literacy for journalism students within a training framework, and while this view certainly has merit, there are larger issues that accentuate the social responsibility for such instruction to journalism students. The development of advanced information competencies for journalism students offers an opportunity not only to provide students with a competitive edge in the job market, but also an opportunity to enhance the quality of journalistic reporting, and thereby contribute to qualitative improvement in the level of public discourse in society.

Information Literacy Defined

Information literacy may be defined as "a set of abilities requiring individuals to 'recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate and use effectively the needed information.'"(2) The new electronic information environment, characterized by a proliferation of information resources available on the Internet, the dramatic increase in public access to "unfiltered" information, and the widespread availability of new formats of information (video, audio, as well as written), accentuates the importance of evaluative skills. Information literacy competencies are differentiated from simple computer or technology literacy. While fluency in the use of "computers, software applications, databases and other technologies" are crucial and necessary to achieve information literacy, information literacy "is a distinct and broader area of competence."(3) In this sense, Information competency involves far more than simply "training" but focuses "on content, communication, analysis, information searching, and evaluation."(4) It involves understanding the production, organization and distribution of information, sensitivity to the inherent biases and limitations of information sources, and critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate and manipulate information.

Information Competencies and Professional Journalists

Information literacy competency skills are particularly important for newspersons. These competencies enable journalists to surpass what Koch calls "journalism as usual" which relies heavily and uncritically on public and private official sources for information, and rise more closely towards the ideal of accurate and fair reporting.(5) The case for advanced information research competencies as a career prerequisite for journalism students is strongly supported by available data. End user access to electronic resources has been thoroughly integrated into daily newsroom operations. Seventy-six percent of American newspapers provide newsroom staff with e-mail accesses; 71 percent desktop access to World Wide Web; 47 percent access to CD-ROM databases; and 22 percent access to more expensive online sources, such as Lexis/Nexis. Other databases regularly accessed directly by journalists as end users include those providing geographical information, government statistics, census data, the Environmental Protection Agency's toxic waste registry, motor vehicle data, property records, judicial proceedings and other public records. (6) Anecdotal evidence indicates a growing shift from full-service research provided by library staff towards more emphasis on end-user training by news media librarians. (Nora Paul, Poynter Institute for Media Studies, personal communication: conversation, March 28, 1998; Debra Levinson, Director, NBC Information Center, personal communication,: conversation, June 7, 2000) Journalists are increasingly expected to perform at least routine electronic searching on their own. (Rod Prince, Executive Producer, NBC News Nightly News, Weekend Edition, personal communication: conversation, April 18, 1999)

In this context, information research competencies constitute a minimum career requirement. Students lacking strong research skills will be at a competitive disadvantage in the journalism job market; journalism students with strong research skills will enjoy a competitive edge.

Information Literacy and the Information Needs of Journalists

According to the ACRL objectives, individuals possessing information competencies would be able to exhibit the following performance behaviors:

* determine the extent of information needed

* access the needed information effectively and efficiently

* evaluate information and its sources critically

* incorporate selected information into one's knowledge base

* use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose

* understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally (7)

These performance behaviors could easily be integrated into a list of information job performance expectations for professional journalists. The information needs of journalists in performing their job responsibilities are generally described as encompassing the following elements: to develop story ideas; provide background information; provide context for stories; identify expert and non-expert sources; prepare for interviews; locate statistics; and verify facts.(8) If we examine these information requirements closely the intrinsic link of these needs to the abovementioned information literacy performance behaviors becomes abundantly clear:

To develop story ideas. Traditionally, journalists and assignment editors have routinely perused wire stories, press releases, other newspapers, and newsletters, as well as receive tips and ideas from sources in the effort to develop story ideas. The advent of the Web and other electronic databases has provided access to a range of new sources for journalists to browse. This new technological access to possible story ideas requires journalists to have the information literacy competencies to identify, locate, navigate, and search relevant databases and Web sites, and to evaluate the reliability and validity of sources and their information. There is arguably a close connection between journalism's long-standing ethical canon pertaining to fairness and accuracy in reporting and information literacy's emphasis on awareness of the economic, social and legal aspects surrounding the production and use of information. To assure fairness and accuracy journalists need to utilize the new technologies to expand the search for story ideas and assure a more complete coverage of news in society.

To provide background information. Journalists are typically generalists and often require introductory information to familiarize themselves with the subject matter of a story that they are assigned to cover. Without such overview, newspersons lack an orientation as to what kind of further information needs they might have, where to do their newsgathering, what questions to ask, what significance to draw from information they encounter, and so forth. This corresponds to information competencies standards pertaining to the capacity to identify information needs, to search for and retrieve required information, and to evaluate information effectively.

To provide context for stories, information research in archival databases helps journalists situate stories in a broader context. Even a brief search in electronic newspaper or newswire archival databases, such as Lexis/Nexis, can transform what initially seems like a purely isolated local story into a story with national connections or implications. For example, after a brief search on Lexis/Nexis or Ethnic NewsWatch, charges of "environmental racism" concerning proposed construction of a garbage incinerator in a minority neighborhood can be transformed from a typical NIMBY (not in my backyard) piece into a broader story about the local manifestation of a national problem. Information competencies involving searching and retrieving information, and application of critical thinking evaluative skills to the pronouncements of local officials and activists, allow journalists to surpass purely local limitations, contextualize news about public affairs, and deepen public knowledge and discourse. Ethical obligations to provide completeness and comprehensiveness in reporting is integrally linked to the use of research information in providing context.

To identify expert and non-expert sources. Journalistic protocol requires reporters to locate, identify and interview expert sources for comment to be integrated into news stories. Information research skills in accessing, retrieving, and critically evaluating the credentials of experts, and ethical concerns to avoid one-sidedness in expert lists are crucial elements in fulfilling this journalistic requirement. Background information already discussed above provides a framework for framing incisive questions. In addition, journalists must often add a humanizing dimension to their stories by including comments from "real people," ordinary citizens effected by the news events they cover, i.e., parents of students in a school/education story, or patients' family members in a disease story, victims in a consumer rip-off story, etc. Again journalists need information competency skills in orienting themselves as to where to look for such sources (i.e., locating associations and organizations, support groups, Interact discussion groups.), and in differentiating between "cranks" and legitimate sources.

To prepare for interviews. Interview preparation is often a problematic aspect in covering the news. Journalists rely heavily on corporate and public officials for information, and, as generalists, often find themselves at a disadvantage in the face of an interviewee's superior expertise on specific subject matter. General background information, including relevant statistics and data, familiarization with the past evolution of an ongoing story, and knowledge of the interviewee's prior statements and actions are all necessary to provide the journalist with the wherewithal to challenge and evaluate the validity and veracity of what interviewees tell them. As one journalist put it, "there always comes a moment in every interview where the guy realizes that I've done my homework and he'd better level with me." (Brenda Breslauer, news producer, personal communication: conversation, April 10, 1993) Here again competencies in information searching and retrieval, and evaluation are essential.

To locate statistics. Journalists often need statistics to round out a story. Efficiently retrieving this information, whether in print, online or via telephone, requires an understanding of how information is produced and distributed, how to identify pertinent sources, how to retrieve information, and how to evaluate and interpret the data.

To verify facts. Fact checking is a necessary, though non-glamorous aspect of the journalistic endeavor. Journalists routinely attempt to double- and triple-source factual information. The explosive growth of electronic resources actually complicates this process, and requires critical analytical skills in evaluating the information. Even prestigious news organizations like the New York Times or Washington Post publish erroneous information, or even fraudulent or fictitious information, as seen in the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times.(9) With instant electronic availability on news organizations' Web sites and in such news databases as Lexis/Nexis, these errors may be picked up and republished by other news organizations, creating the false illusion that erroneous information is factual. Competencies involved in searching for and retrieving information are obviously involved in this task. But most crucial are the critical thinking skills involved in determining whether computer searches are turning up independent corroboration of the fact being verified or just republications of the same error.

Clearly the abilities to determine the extent of needed information, access it effectively and efficiently, evaluate it critically, incorporate selected information into one's knowledge base, use information effectively, understand the economic, political and social contexts in which information is produced, and to use information ethically, which correspond closely to the information literacy competencies identified by ACRL, are skills integral parts to a journalists professional performance.

Information Competencies Means Better Quality Journalism

If any educated person must have a mastery of information competencies to function effectively in the information age, it is even more necessary for journalists, as practitioners in society's information sphere, to have advanced skills in this regard. These competencies are necessary not only for career success, but also to be able to perform profession tasks in a manner that will contribute to the social good. An increased emphasis on educating student journalists in information literacy holds the potential to contribute to a qualitatively improved journalism. Hansen has demonstrated that award-winning journalism uses more information research in the preparation of articles, than non-award winning reporting. (10)

Koch observes that one of the greatest shortcomings of American journalism is the tendency for reporting to be biased towards authority--whether government, or business. Newspeople report on what officials say and too often their investigative efforts are restricted primarily to gaining as much information as possible from these institutional sources (the police, the mayor, the community relations officer, etc.). In the worst case scenario, this reduces reporting to a transcription of official pronouncements, transforming the Fourth Estate from a public watchdog over officialdom into a transmission belt for the official version of reality. For Koch, "online data technologies empower writers and reporters by providing them with information equal to or greater than that possessed by the public or private official they are assigned to interview." (11) Access to electronic "resources open(s) the accumulated information of libraries and create(s) a system in which the data presented by other journalists can be fashioned, quickly and efficiently, into an objective context for the news ..." (12) Armed with efficient access to online information, journalists can transcend the limitations of "journalism as usual," challenge officialdom's version of events and resist official manipulation, and prepare themselves to ask difficult questions, contextualize information, introduce a broader range of views, and come closer to the ideal goal of objectivity or fairness in reporting.

Responsibilities and Opportunities for Librarians

Despite professional journalism's growing reliance on electronic resources, and the consequent responsibility for journalism programs to provide students with education that prepares them for the future of their field, instructional librarians have been comparatively slow to forge new partnerships with journalism programs. Only one-third of journalism programs offer courses "emphasizing library and database use" (defined as one-fifth or more of class time devoted to research instruction, and 34 percent do not offer courses offering students training in information research. (13) The responsibilities of librarians are paramount in introducing information competencies into journalism curricula, both in terms of convincing their colleagues in the journalism faculty of the necessity for such instruction, and in designing curriculum and providing instruction. Journalism educators themselves are generally neophytes to end user searching, and even if they are convinced of the necessity to integrate information competencies into the curriculum, they do not generally possess the knowledge or expertise to provide this instruction. This opens tremendous opportunities for collaborative efforts for librarian-instructors to partner with journalism programs. A variety of forms of instruction are possible: course-integrated lectures (information modules); research courses; team-taught courses; or workshops.


More is involved here than simply the opportunity for collaborative work. There is an underlying fundamental social responsibility for librarians to promote information competency instruction for journalism students. If an informed citizenry is the basis for a democratic society, if student acquisition of information competencies is a basic outcome required of higher education, and if news media play a central role in the transmission of information to the general public, then librarians have an ethical obligation to intervene assertively in this aspect of the education of the next generation of the Fourth Estate. No one else is qualified to do it effectively. Librarians are the information experts and therefore have the responsibility to help develop the professional skills of those who will use, elaborate, and disseminate information in the future. Librarians can stand by passively and lament the deplorable quality of the news media, or they can help develop a generation of responsible and information competent journalists by taking assertive action to integrate information literacy instruction into journalism programs on their campuses.


(1.) Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). Task Force on Information Literacy Standards, "Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education," College & Research Libraries News, 61, 3 March 2000 207-215

(2.) American Library Association. Presidential Committee on Information Literacy. Final Report (Chicago: American Library Association, 1989), downloaded April 20, 1998

(3.) ACRL. Task Force on Information Literacy Standards. Information Literacy, 208

(4.) Ibid. 208

(5.) Tom Koch, Journalism for the 21st Century: Online Information, Electronic Databases, and the News. Westport Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1991, xv-xvi

(6.) Newspaper Association of America, "New E-Tools Replace the Old,". Tech News, 4, 2 March/April 1998 downloaded April 15, 1998

(7.) ACRL. Task Force on Information Literacy Standards. "Information Literacy," 207.

(8.) Nora Paul, "Information Tasks/Internet Tools," Poynter Institute for Media Studies, 1998 (unpublished handout)

(9.) Dan Barry, David Barrow, Jonathan D. Glarer, Adam Liptak and Jacques Steinberg, "Correcting the Record: Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception," New York Times May 11, 2003, Sect. 1, p.1

(10.) Kathleen A. Hansen "Information Richness and Newspaper Prizes" Journalism Quarterly, 67, 4 : Winter 1990 930-935.

(11.) Koch, Journalism for the 21st Century. xxiii

(12.) Ibid. 50

(13.) Julie Bolding, "Research Skills in Instruction in Undergraduate Programs," Journalism and Mass Communication Educator 51 (Spring '96) 15-22

Jerry Bornstein, Baruch College, City University of New York

Bornstein is an associate professor at Baruch College Library. He teaches undergraduate courses in business and journalism research, and serves as the graduate services librarian. Previously he served as senior researcher at the NBC News Reference Library, where he was employed for fifteen years.
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Author:Bornstein, Jerry
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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