Why Research Matters to Journalists

“Joyce! Joyce! I need to talk to you for a minute!” I heard one of my journalism professors call after me as I was on my way to class. As the librarian liaison to the Mass Communication & Communication Studies Department at Towson University, I teach public relations, advertising, journalism and communication students how to find, evaluate and use information. The professor continued, “Joyce, I need you to come into my intro class and teach a session.” This was not an unusual request since I usually come into about 40 different communication classes per semester to help those students learn how to research.

What the professor asked for next, however, was unusual. She said, “Joyce, I have students who don’t understand why they need to do research at all. Can you get them to see that research matters?”

This was an uncommon request because traditionally I’m asked to teach specific skills, like how to find census data. In fact those of us who are academic journalism librarians have teaching these concrete skills down to a science—we even codified them in 2011 into the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Journalism Students and Professionals. But convincing a group of mostly 20-something college students why research matters at all was new territory for me and I needed a new paradigm for teaching critical thinking about information (otherwise known as information literacy).

It turns out that I am not alone in needing a new way to think about information literacy instruction. Academic librarians in every discipline are facing similar questions about how we can encourage our students to thoughtfully evaluate all the information they consume. As a result, beginning in 2013, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) convened a task force to discuss what academic librarians teach and how they teach it. Then in 2015, after much discussion and debate, the task force released the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. This Framework document converts a group of skills that librarians impart on students into a life-long journey made up of milestones, called “pivotal threshold concepts” that, once understood, transform the way that students relate to information. There are seven of these threshold concepts in the document and they include ideas such as “Scholarship as Conversation,” which means that students need to move from thinking that one source is sufficient to understanding that they are entering a back-and-forth dialogue with multiple perspectives when they begin researching a topic. The librarian’s role in the classroom is transformed as well, from a sage-on-the-stage who shows students how to research, to more of an instructional designer who creates opportunities for students to grasp the threshold concepts.

The challenge for journalism librarians is that the threshold concepts were developed with more traditional academic research disciplines in mind, like history or biology, and it is not clear to what extent those concepts relate to a more applied field of study, such as journalism. As a result, a group of academic librarians who teach journalism students, including myself, came together to try and translate the Framework document into our discipline. Specifically, we wanted to figure out if the seven threshold concepts apply or if they need alteration.

In order to solve this puzzle, we began gathering what we call “stuck places”—those instances where journalism students and practitioners seemingly have trouble finding, evaluating and using information in their reporting. For the better part of a year, we surveyed and interviewed journalism educators, reporters and editors, as well as news librarians and we ended up with a list of 41 “stuck places,” covering everything from the inability to find credible sources to a lack of understanding about how paywalls and search engine optimization influence news production.

Ultimately we are hoping to create a full list of journalism-specific “stuck places” mapped to each of the Framework’s threshold concepts, along with learning objectives and corresponding lesson plans to address those “stuck places.” We certainly hope to continue to involve journalism practitioners in every step of this process and we would welcome any feedback they can provide.

As for my instruction about why research matters, I ended up creating a session where students work in groups to test different search strategies (Google vs. library databases) in order to determine which strategy is the best for finding statistics from a credible source. At the conclusion of this session, I always ask students what they learned and it is not uncommon to hear something about the mechanics of searching. More and more, however, I’m hearing elements of critical thinking seep into their responses. Sometimes students tell me that the website evaluation paradigm they learned in high school (i.e. a “.com” website equals not credible and “.org” or “.gov” equals credible) is too simplistic.  But even more heartening is when budding journalists say they now realize that determining credibility is complex because it is tied up with a whole lot of other variables; they can’t rely on just one source; and where and how they search for information determines what information they ultimately are able to uncover. Those are the moments that I live for as a journalism librarian because I know these future reporters are now beginning to look at finding, evaluating and using information in a whole new way.

By Joyce Garczynski

Joyce Garczynski is Towson University’s Assistant University Librarian for Development & Communications. In this role she teaches communication students about the research process, manages library publicity including social media, and manages library fundraising efforts. Joyce received her MLS from the University of Maryland’s iSchool in 2009 and holds a Master’s Degree in Communication from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.


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