Making the Intellectual Freedom News: How Do Our News Editors Make Selections?
By: April Dawkins and Kate Lechtenberg
You might not have noticed, but we, April Dawkins and Kate Lechtenberg, alternate weeks working on the Intellectual Freedom News weekly updates. Each week, we work to compile the news and organize it so it can be easily skimmed by those of you who subscribe to the blog. Sometimes we email each other with articles we’ve seen that the other might have missed, and the OIF staff — Jamie, Deborah, and Kristin — also send us emails with articles to include. Recently, we’ve been comparing notes about what we’ve learned as we gather the Intellectual Freedom News during our first year working for OIF and we thought you, as the readers, might be interested in learning more about the process and our reflections. Here’s a sample of our recent conversations…
Gathering news in light of ALA and OIF positions
Kate: April, we both started working for the OIF as news editors shortly after the 2016 election. It’s been sort of baptism by fire, huh? There’s so much talk about media bias and multiple perspectives right now, and even though these are concepts that librarians have been concerned about for years, I think I’ve been hyper-aware of the perspectives and sources I choose to include in our weekly news round-up.
April: Yes, definitely. But the first thing I think everyone should know is that compiling the IF News is a job that includes a position and a perspective. I work for the Office of Intellectual Freedom, and I personally believe in the need for all people to have intellectual freedom. So, when I am looking for news articles, I am naturally drawn to those that support positions held by the American Library Association, the Office for Intellectual Freedom, and the Library Bill of Rights. Because of this, I choose to include articles that support those positions on access, privacy, the First Amendment, censorship, net neutrality and pull articles that show attempts to limit those freedoms. I’m further informed from my perspective as a librarian. I’m now an academic, teaching students who wish to become school and public librarians, but I spent 15 years as a high school librarian. I have to be careful to make sure I’m looking at the issues from a wider perspective than my own. For example, how might the issue of net neutrality impact public libraries, not just school libraries?
Kate: Yeah, my experience is in school libraries, too, and it’s been great to learn more about public and academic library contexts, as well as broader First Amendment, privacy, and policy issues as well.
Staying informed with Google Alerts and our go-to source list
April: One of the things that we both do to stay up to date with issues related to intellectual freedom is subscribe to Google Alerts. When I first started with the news, I created a list of key words and phrases and created a daily alert that is delivered to my inbox each morning at 6 a.m. Some examples of key words that I use are “intellectual freedom,” “censorship,” “inappropriate books,” “Patriot Act,” “book challenges,” and “privacy.” I actually have about 25 different key words or phrases that are included in the daily update.
Kate: I’ve also subscribed for regular updates from Wired, Chronicle of Higher Education, and the International Association of Privacy Professional’s (IAPP) “Daily Dashboard.” Those three give me a nice smattering of articles about technology, academic freedom, and privacy. On Thursday nights or Friday mornings, my last stop for the week’s IF news is to go through a list of additional websites and news sources that OIF staffers Deborah Caldwell-Stone and Kristin Pekoll have curated over the years. I always start with the ALA publications like American Libraries and the ALA press releases, and then I check common library publications like School Library Journal and Library Journal. The grab bag includes sites like Newseum, Ars Technica, Constitutional Law Prof Blog, and Education Week’s School Law Blog, and these sites are really helpful for filling out perspectives from different stakeholder groups.
April: After a year of this, we’ve got a pretty good routine going!
Partisan sources: To include or not to include?
Kate: Yeah, it’s like clockwork most of the time. I get into what I call the IF News Zone, and I can really quickly scan headlines to decide if it’s on topic, and then I read part or all of the article to decide which section of our newsletter to put it in. But sometimes my partisan alarm goes off and I have to pause and do a gut check. When I see a headline like “Censoring Christians: Facebook and Twitter, Oh My!” in my Google alerts, I go off autopilot and start digging into more specifics. My gut check goes a little something like this:
- What’s the story? I read the article to see what their argument is and how it compares with my understanding of the issue based on other sources I’ve read.
- Says who? I check the source to see if they are a mainstream news source.
- Who else? I do a Google search for other news sources covering this topic.
And if I’m still not sure, I do a compass check: Sometimes after being inundated with so many news sources with so many different perspectives, I just need to recalibrate my news selection compass by asking “What would other OIF staffers do?” It’s really helpful to have a periodic check-in with you, April! And as you said, sometimes we ask Kristin, Deborah, and Jamie for advice as well, and those conversations are always helpful.
April: Yeah, when you emailed me about that one, we were both on the same page, but it was helpful to have that periodic affirmation that we’re taking the same approach.
Kate: Definitely. Our last email chain about the source above reminded me of a couple important points:
- News sources: We stick with mainstream news sources, and we try to select publications and articles from across the political spectrum.
- Advocacy groups: We do include some articles from reputable partisan advocacy groups that support ALA intellectual freedom policies — groups like the National Coalition of Censorship and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. But we don’t include partisan advocacy groups that generally oppose ALA policies. For example, we wouldn’t include articles from hypothetical websites like “Comic Books Are Dirty and Evil” or “Citizens Against Libraries.” Sometimes we might take up those arguments in a blog post, but we don’t feature them as news. We also don’t include articles that include unnamed posts or are clearly not run by professionals in their field.
Seeking varied perspectives
Kate: That said, I do think we could do a better job of systematically seeking out a variety of viewpoints from the mainstream media. We could use sources like allsides.com to help our search, and maybe we should put some traditionally conservative mainstream news sources like The National Review and Fox News on our weekly list to check more thoroughly for a variety of viewpoints. What do you think April?
April: Yes. I think we need to deliberately look for some articles that provide contrasting perspectives. I think the example below is a good one of how we tried to provide some balance in articles. This was when Richard Spencer was scheduled to speak at the University of Florida in October. In this case, Kate started with a local source and then provided additional perspectives in a bulleted list underneath the first article. Kate included some national articles, local articles, and some more conservative sources here.
Beneath the fold: Around the web
Kate: So while most of the Intellectual Freedom News is focused on U.S. issues of censorship, privacy, access, academic freedom, and First Amendment issues, if you make it to the end of the newsletter, you find even more variety. Sometimes, we also run across articles that aren’t pinpointing a current news event related to intellectual freedom but are still topically of interest to our subscribers. We put these in the “Around the Web” section. This might include a recently released book award list, a relevant interview with an author or other figure, opinion pieces that aren’t focused on current news, or human interest or pop culture stories that relate to our news categories.
April: And international news is an interesting area to include. At first, I wasn’t sure about including articles about international issues related to intellectual freedom, but I thought since I found them interesting, other people might as well. I also think that examining what occurs in other countries can sometimes serve as a cautionary tale to all of us, helping us to understand how important it is to advocate for defending intellectual freedom in our own country. I often choose to include articles that look at how American companies, like Google or Facebook, sometimes choose to change their policies to conform to political pressure in countries like China. Another example is including information about new rulings in the European Union about privacy and the right to be forgotten. I also sometimes include articles about specific authors or artists whose work has been challenged in other countries. In some cases these are cautionary tales, and in others like the EU articles, I think they show that the United States is behind in creating some protections.
If only we had space for…
Kate: But you know, there’s one entertaining, ongoing international issue we always leave out, right?
April: Yep. Almost every week, I get multiple news alerts about movies in India being censored or challenging the censor board. Because it happens so much and so often, I’ve deliberately left them out. If we included all of those articles, they’d take over the international news section!
Kate: Kudos to all those brave intellectual freedom warriors in India! And thank to all of you for reading about our process with the IF News.
April: If you have any questions or suggestions for us, please add your comments below or email us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral student in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She is also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.
April Dawkins is an assistant professor in the Library and Information Studies department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In May 2017, April completed her Ph.D. at the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. Her research focus for her doctoral dissertation was understanding the factors that influence decisions around selection in school libraries and the role of self-censorship. Prior to her doctoral studies, April served for 15 years as a high school media specialist in North Carolina. She is also a past president of the North Carolina School Library Media Association. April also serves on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians. Find her on Twitter @aprldwkns.