Evaluating information is one of the trickiest parts of library studies/information competency to teach, as there is no single guideline or rubric that will work for every topic or every scenario. Recently, among informal email/Twitter discussion, the issue of the website ProCon came up. Concerns regarding the political/moral bias of the site’s information and the limited argument diachotomy about a topic were just some of the points discussed about how ProCon oversimplifies the thinking process by shortcutting evaluation and critical analysis of the source and the spectrum of topic issues. I see the same issues arise in the websites my students choose as part of their annotated bibliographies. So, when driving to work today, I heard the following NPR broadcast where they evaluated the article’s information, resources, and their reliability.
The article notes the conflicting reports about radiation leaks while also getting messages about the overheating problem getting under control. Jon Hamilton provides a brief synopsis of the situation, but the conversation then veers to …
Linda: “How open do you think Teppco, the company that owns this plant, how open have they been about what they are doing and [how] things are going. I guess what I am asking is can you trust this information?”
Jon: “Open and Teppco are not words you usually hear in the same sentence. The Tokyo Electric Power company is very guarded and , in fact, the President of the company has been criticized a lot for essentially not appearing in front of television cameras or answering questions at all. And one of the reasons they may be so hesitant is that the company has not looked great and they have certainly made some big mistakes.”
Linda: “So what about the Japanese government?”
Jon: “I think they’d be rated as having done a lot better. The Nuclear Safety Agency has been having a press conference everyday; the Prime Minister’s office also holds at least one press conference a day and they’ve also provided a lot of the analysis about what is going on inside the plant.”
Linda: “What about foreign experts? I understand there are some people who have come in to help out.”
Jon: “There are definitely foreign experts here. More recently, France, of course, has sent some people. The US has been supplying cooling water and also some expertise. Recently, Robert Gale, a US doctor who actually was involved in treating people in Chernobyl, was visiting and he is one of the few who actually makes a public statement, perhaps because he is not here officially on behalf of a government. He seemed pretty positive about how Japan is handling the situation. The other experts have been extremely cautious; they are here as guests of the Japanese government and they tend to leave the statements to others.”
Linda: “So, Jon, why is it, if you keep up on the news on this reactor, one day things are better and one day things are terrible news, imminent catastrophe. Why is that happening? Is that a media problem?”
Jon: “Well, certainly you get a different tone depending on which media outlets you look at. Interestingly enough, in Japan, the headlines tend to be a bit less alarming than in some of the US papers I’ve read. But I think part of the thing is that every little thing that happens here is being reported and a lot of the little things sound scary, all these little details. You know, if you imagine, if you had a doctor giving you reports of every tiny thing happening to a patient in the intensive care unit, it would be well ‘one day their temperature is up a little bit’ and ‘their kidney function is off a little bit’. Individually, those things sound scary and you might lose track of the fact that the patient is actually doing better.”
These segments, transcribed as well as I could, indicate the evaluation process on what this information means. The initial question “can we trust this information?” puts the concept of evaluation in the forefront. Jon’s response, noting the company’s trend of silence and motivation to stay silent, takes a step back from the actual update today to put the spotlight on the source. At the same time, Jon compares and contrasts the limited reporting from Teppco to the active openness of the Japanese government, assuring that analysis is done by the more open association.
Further analysis stems from the expert information provided. Citing Dr. Robert Gale, who has a unique background in these nuclear reactor failure scenarios, is invaluable and we get a sense as to why we can trust him. But, I wonder what information might we be missing from the other experts? Is Dr. Gale, who is not an official guest of the country, only getting partial information or the same amount as the official guests? What are the backgrounds of those other guests? Why is Dr. Gale not one of those official guests?
Finally, the amount of flux present in the media discussion notes how far the pendulum can swing day-to-day, country-to-country, or media outlet to media outlet. Becoming familiar with the biases of certain plans (**cough, cough, Fox News**), explains how and why reports may vary. Furthermore, Jon notes that the obsessive attention to detail creates a “you can’t see the forest for the trees effect.”
So, with this short clip and some analysis notes in mind, I’ll have to test this out in my next lecture and see what responses I get from students about NPR’s evaluation process and, furthermore, if it helps them do their own information cross-examinations.