This is the latest installment of a weekly feature on this blog — lessons from the nonprofit News Literacy Project. Each installment offers new material for teachers, students and everyone 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 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 teach students how to distinguish between 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, it creates digital curriculums 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. 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 newsletter, 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.

Both of the lessons below concern the global coronavirus pandemic, which has nearly stopped public life in many countries.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus, which causes the disease known as covid-19, probably started first in animals and transferred to humans. As a preface to the lessons, here is what the agency says about the origin and spread of novel coronavirus, which it refers to by its official name, SARS-CoV-2:

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is a betacoronavirus, like MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV. All three of these viruses have their origins in bats. The sequences from U.S. patients are similar to the one that China initially posted, suggesting a likely single, recent emergence of this virus from an animal reservoir.
Early on, many of the patients at the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China had some link to a large seafood and live animal market, suggesting animal-to-person spread. Later, a growing number of patients reportedly did not have exposure to animal markets, indicating person-to-person spread. Person-to-person spread was subsequently reported outside Hubei and in countries outside China, including in the United States.

Here are lessons from the Monday, March 23, 2020, edition of the Sift, as provided by the News Literacy Project:

Beliefs about Covid-19’s genesis

About 3 in 10 (29 percent) of U.S. adults think that the strain of coronavirus that causes covid-19 was either developed intentionally or made accidentally in a lab (a view rejected by researchers), while 43 percent think that it most likely developed naturally, according to Pew Research Center survey findings published on March 18.

The survey also found that 62 percent of respondents said they think that the news media has exaggerated the risks of the current outbreak — “greatly,” according to 37 percent, and “slightly,” according to 25 percent.

In addition, attitudes about various aspects of the pandemic — and news coverage of it — differed along partisan lines, the survey found: Republicans gave news coverage of covid-19 lower ratings than Democrats did and were more likely than Democrats to say that news organizations exaggerated the risks.

During the time the survey of 8,914 American adults was conducted (March 10-16), Pew’s Amy Mitchell and J. Baxter Oliphant wrote: “The number of confirmed cases in the United States increased from about 650 to over 3,000, the World Health Organization declared the covid-19 outbreak a pandemic, President Donald Trump announced a ban on travel to the U.S. from European countries and many universities announced closures or remote classes.”


· “CVS sent false coronavirus information to staff” (Donie O’Sullivan, CNN Business).

Discuss: Do these survey findings surprise you? Why or why not? How do your thoughts and beliefs about this pandemic compare with these findings? What types of news coverage are least helpful? What types are most helpful?

Idea: Have students review the Pew Research Center survey results. Then have students interview adults (aged 18 and older) in their household, asking them how closely they are following news about covid-19, how well they think the media has covered the pandemic, whether they think the media has exaggerated the risks of covid-19 and whether they have seen at least some made-up news about it. They should also ask the adults for their political affiliation and age. Compare these responses with the survey findings.

Covid-19 stigmatization

Denunciations over associating covid-19 with a geographic location or ethnicity, such as calling it the “Chinese virus,” continued last week, despite the World Health Organization’s longstanding guidance (PDF) that diseases should not be identified in ways that could stigmatize geographical locations or groups of people.

In a March 19 statement, the Asian American Journalists Association (supported by other journalist groups) cited that guidance in its condemnation of “harmful language” that “persists.”

According to an analysis published March 17 by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab, media organizations’ use of ethnic or geographic labels for the current strain of coronavirus dropped dramatically after WHO published its recommended naming convention — but the terms spiked on social media because of the use of such language by President Trump and other politicians.


· “Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Their Safety” (Sabrina Tavernise and Richard A. Oppel Jr., The New York Times).

Discuss: How could associating covid-19 with a geographic location create difficulties? Did early news coverage of the coronavirus use problematic terms to refer to the virus? Was WHO correct to issue the guidance not to connect the virus to a specific geographic location? Why or why not?