I stumbled across a supermarket leaflet on its way to the recycling bin. The leaflet was promoting post-new year ‘healthy’ special offers such as fruit chunks and yogurt-coated flakes. Leaving aside the question of why a leaflet dated early January was floating around my house in mid-February, my eye was caught by this tip: “Take a break. Ensuring you eat right is vital but exercising is equally as important. Taking fifteen minutes on your lunch break for a brisk walk is great – and it’s free!” This is undoubtedly sensible advice but the reason that my attention was grabbed was not because I need more exercise but because of the way that written publication conferred authority. “Go for a walk” is an obvious tip and one that anyone might give to a friend of colleague. When it appeared in print, however, my first assumption was that the text had been written by an expert in health or medicine even though, almost certainly, the entire leaflet was composed by marketing staff.
One of the most significant digital age phenomena is the quantity of published written material now available and this has been the case since the first days of the worldwide web. It has always been possible for anyone to create and publish a website and now it is almost as easy to self-publish an e-book which can then be sold through distributors such as Amazon or to create a professional-looking paper or leaflet. The problem of evaluating website information has been recognised for many years and there are several guides available, often published by university library services. For example, Edinburgh University has a very good example which advises students to think about aspects such as audience, authority, accuracy and currency. The University of Leeds has an “Information Evaluation Checklist” in the form of a downloadable pdf which applies the questions to any form of information including books.
The ability to evaluate information is often seen as an aspect of ‘digital literacies’ but, as the Leeds resource indicates, it applies equally to non-digital texts. It is often called ‘information literacy’ and is an important aspect of literacy in general. Digital texts do not carry more authority than non-digital texts; it is the air of professionalism conveyed by print that confers authority. The problem of authority can also be seen, to some extent, in YouTube videos. However, the background seen in video helps to convey information about the authority of the content. For example, somebody recording with a bedroom webcam does not have the appearance of an expert even if that person is a world-renowned professor. Finding a recording space that suggests professionalism can be tricky but with online print, however, it is easy to present material in a way that indicates expertise. As Arthur in Cabin Pressure: “But there’s this website that makes it really simple, even if you’re completely clueless. You can make it play music, and the words flash, and, you know, put in things like the line of dancing aeroplanes – you know, make it look … make it look really professional.”* Arthur’s design, of course, contains several elements that we now understand as visual indicators of amateurism such as flashing text and animated images. On the other hand a plain background without decorative images, equally easy to create with “this website that makes it really simple” conveys instant professionalism whether it is merited or not.
As I have said elsewhere, there are good quality academic blogs where the authors have genuine expertise, even renown and the challenge for students is to distinguish between those texts and others which, on the surface, appear to be of equal standing. This caution should also be applied not only to e-books and other electronic texts but also to paper. As academics and teachers we have always told students to be wary of grey literature but my encounter with the supermarket leaflet was a reminder of how easy it is to forget that print does not equal authority (and that I need to be more pro-active with recycling paper at home).