Information Literacy and the Marketplace of Anxieties
Ontario Library Association Superconference, February 2005
Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College


Promoting information literacy is a priority for academic librarians. We work hard to forge alliances across campus to help our students gain skills we feel they need for college and beyond. It's a worthwhile cause - but we could deepen our fundamental concept of what we mean by information literacy by borrowing insights from cognate approaches.

The Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education frame the process as beginning with individuals articulating an information need. To satisfy that need, they find, evaluate, and use information while complying with legal and ethical norms. This description of the process treats information as granular bits of data - discrete, neutral, and decontextualized. The thing that glues it together is the seeker's need. Information is "out there," and the user finds and uses what he or she needs.

A parallel cause, more advanced in Canada than in the U.S., is media literacy. Media literacy reverses the process: it is framed around ubiquitous media channels to which audiences are exposed; media literacy provides skills for audiences to interpret messages are thrust upon them. (Interestingly, the U.S. version tends to focus on teaching young audiences to protect themselves from messages about sex and violence; the Canadian version teaches critical awareness of political and economic persuasion.) Though media and information literacy have similar goals, they start with very different assumptions and there's surprisingly little communication between the two movements.

Communication Studies is an interdisciplinary field that offers a lot of potential for information literacy. It examines the entire process of creation, transmission, and reception of messages and acknowledges that these are not linear but interdependent, operating within a dynamic and volatile social context. What communication studies offers is a nuanced understanding of how messages are constructed by media and the role that audiences play in receiving and influencing those messages. Speaker, audience, and message interact within a social context that influences all three.

Finally, the field of Cultural Studies adds another dimension: an examination of the power relationships within those relationships. It theorizes the politics of the cultural practices that shape our lives with the belief that understanding those practices and the power dynamics operating within them can lead to social change.

What I'd like to do this morning is focus on one particular rhetorical strategy used in the formation of social issues - drawing on these cognate approaches to information literacy - to illustrate how we might expand our concept of the evaluation of sources. My argument is that, without considering the creation, transmission, and reception of messages - and the politics involved in those processes - we are leaving out a critical piece of what it takes to be information literate.

Gaining market share in the marketplace of anxieties

Anxiety is a potent lever for influencing public opinion. Defining social issues often begins with a naming a situation that is believed to be a challenge to commonly-held moral values. Various claims-makers associate their agendas with that threatening condition so they can gain support. In the process, issues are typified through dramatic story-telling, and the domain of concern is expanded to include as many potential victims as possible. Cultural conventions, such as melodrama, are used to give stories emotional punch. In the process, the threat is often distorted to enhance its significance. As James Kincaid has said, "Doing away with demons is only one part of the job; the other is providing them" (74).

Joel Best suggests there are four key players in the formation of social issues: the media who seek compelling stories to tell, activists who want to promote their solution to the crisis, governments that can use issues to gain support for regulating behavior, and experts, such as scholars who want their work to have influence. To this list, Mary DeYoung adds audiences. For an issue to take off, it must resonate with people's lived experience so their attention can be recruited and retained even after the "facts" have been challenged.

Anxiety about crime

Lets take crime as an example. Everyone fears crime, yet crime stories are immensely popular. One study of Canadian news outlets found that over half of all news coverage was focused on crime, law, and justice (Erickson et al). They conclude that news helps us "visualize deviance, negotiate control, and represent order" (358). As Val McDermid, a popular author of crime fiction, has pointed out, "certain kinds of fear are actually pleasurable. Adrenaline is, after all, a fabulous drug. It produces a great high, it's legal and it's free." She adds it's also "a very good tool for avoidance of responsibility and deflecting criticism." Or, as James Kincaid has put it, "The idea is not to erase the anxiety but to excite it, since it's the anxiety itself that's doing so much for us" (168). Beyond its entertainment value, crime stories offer a clear-cut depiction of good and evil, deviance and control. With crime, in fiction and in news stories, there's always the possibility of punishment. We can enjoy the thrill while being reassured order can be restored.

Our fascination with crime is nothing new. The bloody stages of Elizabethan theatre were influenced by popular pamphlets recounting true crime for an audience thirsty for reading material. Thomas Dekker and Ben Jonson's 1599 tragedy, Page of Plymouth was apparently based on a "true" crime recounted in Sundry Strange and Inhumaine Murthers (1591).

The entertainment value of criminal capers came to the forefront after the moralistic Elizabethan age and influenced early English novels. For example, the exploits of James Hind, a criminal, were presented as "A Pill to purge Melancholy," picaresque adventures similar to novels recounting criminal adventures of characters such as Moll Flanders. The artist William Hogarth depicted the dangers of drinking in his pedantic etching, "Gin Lane," saying "As the Subjects of these Prints are calculated to reform some reigning Vices peculiar to the lower Class of People, in hopes to render them of the most extensive use, the Author has publish'd them in the cheapest Manner possible." Indeed, in the year the popular print was circulated, Parliament passed the Gin Act that regulated the distribution of gin.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel about the evils of slavery, was an international bestseller, but the book that had held that title previously was The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or The Hidden Secrets of a Nun's Life in a Convent, Exposed! - the purported memoir of a nun who allegedly escaped from an evil Canadian convent and lived to tell the tale - a form of "true crime" so lurid and salacious it was sold in adult bookshops in the 1930s.

Penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and later pulp fiction also drew on the popularity of deviance and criminal behavior. Teen Age Dope Slaves, a comic book on the dangers of drug addiction was considered "deplorable" by the author of Seduction of the Innocent, an influential expose of the dangers of reading comics.

Throughout the history of anxiety-as-entertainment, the line between authenticity and fiction has been deliberately blurred. Fiction borrows fact to make its inventions more plausible; "true crime" borrows the conventions of fiction to make its stories more evocative.

Making monsters

In 1981 Time magazine had a cover story on violent crime, a curse with its very own mummy. The monstrous and inhuman figure made of scrap metal and trash personified the threat of random violence. In fact, there was nothing random about it. The victims of violent crime in the eighties were disproportionately young black men, but in order to name violent crime as an issue of importance, it had to be a threat to white, middle-class readers. Randomness also absolved us of any culpability. There is no messiness about socio-economic factors that might contribute to crime. Since crime had no causes, we could redirect funding of social programs to law enforcement. Forget the war on poverty, let's declare war on crime. During the nineties as violent crime rates fell, our level of concern rose - and so did spending on prisons and law enforcement.

It was also in 1981 that a new phrase entered the language. "Serial killers" were nothing new, but their distinctiveness as a named category and the alleged scale of the problem made it into a crisis. The U.S. Department of Justice announced that serial homicide had jumped from less than one percent of murders to 25% practically overnight. It turned out they simply counted every murder for which the circumstances were unknown at the time police filed reports with the FBI and declared them the work of serial killers. This was convenient, because focusing on killers who were described (inaccurately, as it turns out) as exclusively white males made it easier during a Republican administration for liberals and feminists to support restoring the powers that had been curtailed after the FBI's unconstitutional domestic counterintelligence programs had been exposed a few years earlier. It also made it easier to argue for the restoration of capital punishment, which had been ruled unconstitutional because it was discriminatory. Though the feds later retracted those figures, they still surface from time to time. The narrative of serial murder is more compelling than the average murder. And, like other crime stories, the boundaries between "true" serial killer stories and the fictional version are fuzzy. When Sixty Minutes did a story on profilers, they illustrated the process using clips from The Silence of the Lambs.

Children are particularly valuable in the marketplace of anxieties. In 1995 another Time cover story focused on cyberporn. A young child was highlighted on the cover, since threatened children will trump free speech every time. Children represent innocence, a nostalgic view of what should be, always under threat from the outside world. As with the threat of random violence and the serial killer, our fears rarely jive with actual risk. The vast majority of child abuse cases are ones of neglect, with physical abuse coming in second, but child sexual abuse has become our major concern in spite of its smaller numbers. We fear strangers harming our children, when in fact families are more dangerous. Over 90% of young children who are homicide victims are killed by parents, relatives or close family friends. Agenda-setters have a stake in children being at risk. When a meta-analysis of psychology studies concluded that some older teens who engaged in sex with adults were not permanently damaged by the experience, the authors were condemned by the US Congress. That threat was required so they could defend moral order.

To sum up, anxiety about crime reflects the rhetorical nature of the formation of social issues. When homicide figures went up, people were naturally anxious and wondered if it indicated a seismic shift in our moral climate. Violence was inaccurately characterized as "random," expanding the domain of victims to include everybody. When the FBI wanted more funding and more authority, they discovered the threat of serial killers, artificially raising the numbers to attract concern and support. Whenever an issue needs a boost, bringing children into it is likely to help. The political nature of issue formation, and the role of various players in its creation, transmission, and reception suggests that simply evaluating sources, one by one, using a checklist of surface criteria, risks missing the point (Meola).

The remainder of this workshop will involve participants in working through case studies on the formation of several social issues, ending with a discussion of how instruction librarians might include a more contextualized process of source evaluation as part of our information literacy efforts.

Case Studies

Recommended Reading - selected books and articles