Last week I introduced a new weekly feature on this blog — lessons from the nonprofit News Literacy Project on how to distinguish fact from fiction in an age where misinformation is dangerously pandemic and the U.S. president, Donald Trump, routinely calls real news “fake.” This is the second installment, with new material for teachers, students and everybody else who wants a dose of reality.

You can learn about the News Literacy Project and all of the educational resources it provides in this piece, but here’s a brief rundown:

Founded more than a decade ago by Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Los Angeles Times, the News Literacy Project aims to do something that schools everywhere should be doing: teaching students how to distinguish what’s real and fake in the age of digital communication and a president who routinely denounces real news as “fake."

Now the leading provider of news literacy education, the News Literacy Project creates digital curriculum and other resources and works with educators and journalists to teach middle school and high school students how to recognize news and information to trust — and provides them with the tools they need to be informed and engaged participants in a democracy. It uses the standards of high-quality journalism as an aspirational yardstick against which to measure all news and information. And, just as important, it provides the next generation with an appreciation of the First Amendment and the role of a free press.

The following material comes from the project’s free weekly newsletter called the Sift, which takes the most recent viral rumors, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and journalistic ethics issues and turns them into timely lessons with discussion prompts and links. The Sift, which publishes weekly during the school year, has more than 10,000 subscribers, most of them educators.

Here are new lessons from this week’s edition of THE SIFT, as provided by the News Literacy Project:

Students show ‘troubling’ lack of information skills

A new report from the Stanford History Education Group has found little change in high school students’ ability to evaluate information online since 2016, when the Stanford researchers released the results of a similar study.

This skill set — dubbed “civic online reasoning” by Stanford researchers — consists of the ability to recognize advertising, including branded content; to evaluate claims and evidence presented online; and to correctly distinguish between reliable and untrustworthy websites and other sources of information. (The executive summary of the 2016 study summed up “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet” in one word: “bleak” — and the executive summary of the latest report acknowledged that “the results — if they can be summarized in a word — are troubling.”)

For the latest findings, the Stanford researchers partnered with Gibson Consulting, an education research group, to assess 3,446 high school students from 16 school districts in 14 states. The students in the sample matched the demographic profile of high school students in the United States.

The researchers asked the students to complete six assessments with five distinct tasks, then assigned each response one of three ratings: Beginning (incorrect or showing use of “irrelevant strategies for evaluating online information”), Emerging (partially incorrect, or not fully showing sound reasoning) and Mastery (effective evaluation, reasoning and explanation).

A task asking students to evaluate the reliability of, a website about climate change run by a group funded by fossil fuel companies, had the lowest scores. Less than 2 percent of student responses were given a Mastery rating; more than 96 percent were rated Beginning. In another task, students were presented with a Facebook post from a user named “I on Flicks” containing a video compilation that purported to show Democrats committing voter fraud during the 2016 Democratic primaries but was a collection of videos showing ballot-box stuffing in Russia. When asked if the video presented strong evidence of voter fraud in the United States, more than half (52 percent) said that it did. Only three respondents — 0.08 percent of the students surveyed — were able to find the source video.

Other tasks asked students to identify the ads on an image of Slate’s homepage and to compare the usefulness of two Web pages — a page containing the text from “10 Myths About Gun Control,” a brochure published by the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, and the Wikipedia page for “gun politics in the United States” — as a starting place for “research on gun control.”

Idea: Create a series of bell ringers to help students with the core “civic online reasoning” skills measured in this study. For example, take images of several websites’ homepages and present one of them to students each day for a week, asking them to identify all the ads on the page (including sponsored content). Or find websites sponsored by special interests — such as a brand journalism site — and challenge students to evaluate the credibility of each one. Or use this newsletter’s viral rumor rundown each week to create quick assessments of students’ ability to effectively detect misinformation or evaluate evidence for claims.

Resource: The News Literacy Project’s new mobile app, Informable, has more than 100 examples assessing some of these same skills, including ad recognition and evidence evaluation.


In a searing speech on Thursday, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen said that social media platforms “amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history” and called for them to be held accountable for the “hate, conspiracies and lies” that they allow their users to publish.

Addressing the Anti-Defamation League’s Never Is Now summit, where he received the organization’s International Leadership Award, Cohen targeted Mark Zuckerberg in particular, describing as “ludicrous” the Facebook chief executive’s assertion that allowing misinformation is part of protecting free expression.

Cracking down on misinformation online is “not about limiting anyone’s free speech,” Cohen said, but “about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history.” He also pointed out that social media’s “entire business model relies on generating more engagement, and nothing generates more engagement than lies, fear and outrage.” He concluded by calling for “regulation and legislation” to curb the worst offenses of social media platforms and for the platforms to fix their “defective” products “no matter how much it costs and no matter how many moderators you need to employ.”

Discuss: Are social media companies responsible for what users post on their platforms? Does a commitment to “free expression” mean that any and all types of content must be allowed? Does Facebook allow all types of content to be posted now? Should major social media companies be regulated by the government? If so, in what ways?

Idea: Have students watch or read Cohen’s speech (be aware that the video contains an instance of profanity that is not in the transcript), then use a four corners technique to break students into groups according to their opinions about what he said. Have students who strongly agree with Cohen defend his talk, have those who partially agree and partially disagree explain the details of their position, and have those who strongly disagree explain why, as well.

Another idea: In pairs or individually, ask students to annotate Cohen’s speech, marking the statements with which they agree and the ones with which they disagree. Calculate which statements have the most consensus in the class and which are most controversial. Then create a poll for other students in the school to take, and publish the results.


Viral rumor rundown

NO: Two children of U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, were not arrested and charged with arson for a nonexistent fire at the nonexistent St. Christopher’s Church of Allod in Maine. YES: A “satirical” story making those claims was published in July on, one of a network of satire sites run by the self-proclaimed “liberal troll” Christopher Blair, who frequently provokes incautious readers online. YES: “Allod” is an acronym for “America’s Last Line of Defense,” another of Blair’s sites. YES: This item has been copied (and in some cases plagiarized) by a number of clickbait sites seeking ad revenue, and links to those stories continue to be shared online. NO: Many of those sites do not label this item as satire. (Note that these are two separate hyperlinks for the two words “those” and “sites.”)

Discuss: Blair publishes absurd falsehoods, which he prominently labels as satire, but does so to troll and mock conservatives. Is this a legitimate form of “satire”? Why or why not? If Blair’s obviously labeled pieces get mistaken as actual news, who is at fault? Is it unethical for Blair to profit from his satire through ad placements on his websites? Is it unethical for digital ad brokers to place ads on Blair’s sites? On sites that plagiarize Blair’s work?