[Insert Misleading Headline]

Websites need clicks to get advertisers in order to survive in the constantly fluctuating internet marketplace. You’ve seen them – “I’m Not Sure It’s Possible To See This Chart And *Not* Think It’s A Big Problem,” “Everyone I Talk To Says ‘Who Cares?’ Then I Show Them This And They Freak Out A Little,” “This Is The Personality Trait That Most Often Predicts Success,” and the list goes on and on. (I’m intentionally not linking to the related websites because, again, click bait.) More often than not the headline fails to give you any indication about what the article is actually about. “I’m Not Sure It’s Possible To See This Chart And *Not* Think It’s A Big Problem” could be about the rise of poverty in the United States (unlikely), the continued belief in creationism (maybe), or something to do with Kim Kardashian (most likely.) Either way, you probably need to click on the link to actually find out. And that’s what the websites want. I get it.

What I cannot accept is historically reliable news outlets following this trend. As an instruction librarian, I teach students how to critically evaluate information sources. What happens when a source such as The New York Times starts inserting misleading headlines?

The following is a tweet by a friend of mine, Daniel Victor, who is a social media editor at the NYT. Dan always posts interesting content from the NYT, especially when it’s sports related, so I naturally clicked on the article.

Having worked a couple of years with social science students and faculty, who rely heavily on data for their research, I’ve become increasingly critical of the representation of data in news pieces. A few things struck me with this article:

  • “In Terms of Fans, the Heat Have Already Beaten the Spurs” – “Fans” in the sense it’s used in the headline is all encompassing. How did the NYT collect data that accurately represents the demographic spread of NBA fans across the country?

  • Ow, that’s a pretty map!

  • “Based on estimates derived from which teams people “like” on Facebook…” Did you read enough of the article to get to this point? If you did, did you connect this sentence to their definition of “fans”?

So this is a map of fans who use Facebook. More specifically, those fans who use Facebook at a level where they “like” their favorite sports teams. I feel as though we’re getting into a niche group here. A group that doesn’t fully represent NBA fans across the country. (You could also disprove that assertion with a different data set.)

After some tweets back and forth, Dan provided me with links to methodology and I told him my issue was really with the headline and not the data itself:

So what’s the big deal? It’s just a headline and those who are truly interested will read the article and can extrapolate how they define “fans.”  I think it’s a big deal when I think about the students with whom I work. The majority will not read the entire article. They’ll stop at the map. They won’t bridge that final gap of interpreting what the map is actually representing. Maybe this is OK for daily, casual information digestion, but it’s a habit that seeps into the classroom as well. It breeds an information semi-illiterate society.

So what can librarians do? The same thing we’ve always done. Continue to push for information literacy instruction in college classrooms. Push for critical IL instruction and not database demonstrations. Use examples like this! It isn’t egregious, it’s from a reliable news source, it’s an interesting topic, and it demands higher level thinking. A critical evaluation of an article like this represents the lifelong information literacy skills the LIS field espouses. Embrace it!