Here is the latest installment of a weekly feature I have been running for some time on this blog — lessons from the nonprofit News Literacy Project, which aims to teach students and the public how to sort fact from fiction in our digital and contentious age. There has not been a time in recent U.S. history when this skill has been as important due to social and partisan media’s ability to spread rumors and lies.
The News Literacy Project was founded more than a decade ago by Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter at the Los Angeles Times, and it has become the leading provider of news literacy education. You can learn more about the organization and its resources and programs here.
The material in this post comes from the Sift, the organization’s newsletter for educators, which has more than 23,000 subscribers. Published weekly during the school year, it explores timely examples of misinformation, addresses media and press freedom topics, discusses social media trends and issues, and includes discussion prompts and activities for the classroom. Get Smart About News, modeled on the Sift, is a free weekly newsletter for the public.
The News Literacy Project’s browser-based e-learning platform, Checkology, helps educators teach middle and high school students how to identify credible information, seek out reliable sources and know what to trust, what to dismiss and what to debunk.
It also gives them an appreciation of the importance of the First Amendment and a free press. Checkology, and all of NLP’s resources and programs, are free. Since 2016, more than 37,000 educators in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and more than 120 other countries have registered to use the platform. Since August 2020, more than 3,000 educators and more than 125,000 students have actively used Checkology.
Here is material from the May 2 edition of the Sift:
This school year, News Goggles has aimed to offer a behind-the-scenes look at journalism through videos of conversations with professional journalists about their work. We’ve spoken to journalists from Oklahoma Watch, the Chicago Tribune, Colorado Public Radio, the 19th* and Reuters. Along the way, we’ve shined a light on key news literacy concepts, including sourcing, watchdog reporting and journalism standards. We will return in the fall with more News Goggles resources!
Note: You can explore previous News Goggles videos, annotations and activities in the News Literacy Project’s Resource Library under “Classroom Activities.”
1. A California sheriff’s recent efforts to target a Los Angeles Times reporter are part of a trend of public officials using their power to undercut the work of journalists, write Elahe Izadi and Paul Farhi of The Washington Post. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced at a recent news conference that Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian would be included in a criminal leak investigation following her watchdog reporting on a departmental coverup involving a deputy kneeling on an inmate’s head. Amid widespread criticism, the sheriff backed off his remarks, but press freedom advocates say such actions can still have a chilling effect on other reporting on matters of public interest.
• Discuss: Why would those in power seek “to punish or push back on journalists for articles they don’t like”? What are some ways that press freedoms can be restricted? How can journalists in a country with legal or constitutional protections still experience restrictions?
• Idea: Ask students how they think press freedoms in the United States compare to other countries. Where would they rank the United States? Then, have students explore the Reporters Without Borders 2021 global press freedom ranking. Are any of the rankings surprising? How does the U.S. compare?
• Another idea: Invite a journalist from NLP’s Newsroom to Classroom directory to discuss press freedoms and share experiences related to the issue with students.
• Resource: “Press Freedoms Around the World” (Checkology virtual classroom).
2. The desire to avoid conflict plays a key role in how and whether people challenge misinformation on personal messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, according to a recent report from the Everyday Misinformation Project. Researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 102 people in Britain and examined how social norms shaped their responses to coronavirus vaccine falsehoods shared in personal messaging groups. They found that people — worried about “undermining group cohesion by provoking conflict” — were reluctant to speak up. But, the report noted, failing to call out falsehoods in friend, family or school groups can tacitly legitimize misinformation and “contribute to its further spread.”
• Discuss: Do you speak up when relatives or friends share misinformation? Why or why not? If so, what kind of approach do you use? Is it effective? If not, what do you think would make you feel more comfortable calling out falsehoods?
• Idea: Use this infographic to help students make a plan for how they can speak up the next time people they know share misinformation.
• Related: “Millions depend on private messaging apps to keep in touch. They’re ripe with misinformation” (Saher Khan and Vignesh Ramachandran, PBS NewsHour).
Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to further explore conflict avoidance and personal responsibility in calling out misinformation.
NO: The ship in this viral video is not the Russian warship Moskva, which sank in the Black Sea on April 14.
YES: It is video of a missile test on a decommissioned ship conducted by the Norwegian Navy in 2013.
NewsLit takeaway: Sensational footage of fires, artillery and other military combat scenes has repeatedly gone viral out of context during the war between Ukraine and Russia — often to chase clicks and engagement online. As is the case during many significant news events, purveyors of misinformation seized on the sinking of Russia’s flagship missile cruiser for attention — and the stunning video of the decommissioned Norwegian naval ship exploding was easy to pass off out of context. Though these kinds of false context rumors are often recirculated without being altered, in this instance the original video was flipped, likely to make it more difficult for fact-checkers to locate the actual source.
NO: The fact that Ghislaine Maxwell’s trial for sex trafficking in 2021 was not broadcast while other court proceedings — such as the 2022 defamation trial involving Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard — are live-streamed is not due to a conspiracy to protect powerful people on Maxwell’s “client list,” as this meme implies.
YES: Maxwell’s criminal trial took place in federal court, where “electronic media coverage … has been expressly prohibited” since 1946.
YES: Depp’s defamation suit against Heard is a civil matter being tried in a Virginia state court, where electronic media coverage is permitted at the discretion of judges.
NewsLit takeaway: Conspiratorial thinking can lead people to jump to conclusions and misinterpret innocuous details as “evidence” that supports their preferred theories about the world. In this case, false rumors about Maxwell’s trial stem from a persistent belief that powerful institutions are conspiring to protect influential people associated with Jeffrey Epstein — the financier who died by suicide while awaiting trial on sex trafficking and conspiracy charges in 2019. Conspiracy theorists indulged in the same kind of motivated reasoning when Kyle Rittenhouse was tried for murder in Wisconsin state court in 2021. Several iterations of this highly misleading claim have recently circulated online, including in an April 25 tweet by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).