This is the latest installment of a weekly feature on this blog — lessons from the nonprofit News Literacy Project, which 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.”

The 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 is published weekly during the school year, has more than 10,000 subscribers, most of them educators.

The News Literacy Project also offers a program called Checkology, a browser-based platform designed for students in grades six through 12 that helps prepare the next generation to easily identify misinformation. Now, during the novel coronavirus pandemic, the project is offering access to Checkology Premium at no cost to educators and parents in the United States. In just two weeks of the offer, more than 1,100 educators and parents in 49 states and the District have registered to use the platform with as many as 90,000 students.

You can learn more 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 is 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 lessons come from the April 27 edition of the Sift and relate to the pandemic that has shut down public life in much of the world, including in the United States.

Viral rumor rundown

NO: The protest sign in this tweet is not authentic.

YES: The sign actually said, “Give me liberty or give me death” (h/t @jjmacnab).

YES: The photo — taken on April 17 in Huntington Beach, California — shows people protesting statewide stay-at-home orders.

Note: The photo, by Jeff Gritchen of The Orange County Register, is included in the gallery at the top of this report on the protest (possible paywall).

NO: These people pictured outside the state capitol building in Denver did attend an April 19 demonstration against Colorado’s stay-at-home order, but they did not hold the signs shown in the tweet above.

YES: The signs in the photo (taken by Jason Connolly of AFP) actually said “Fear is the real virus,” “Hot, nasty, badass freedom,” “Reopen CO now!” and “This ‘cure’ is deadlier than covid.”

NO: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did not digitally add a Confederate flag to a photo of a protest against a recent extension of the stay-at-home order in Wisconsin.

YES: The man holding a pole flying a Gadsden flag (“Don’t tread on me”) above a Confederate flag can be seen (at around the 0:20 mark) in a video of the protest posted to Facebook.

YES: Another man wearing a nearly identical plaid shirt was holding another pole with a Gadsden flag.


Discuss: What standards and ethics policies relating to photos do quality news organizations strive to abide by? What kinds of alterations to photos are ethical and allowed at standards-based news organizations? What kinds are not? What kinds of consequences might photojournalists face if they are caught breaching those standards?

Idea: Invite a photojournalist from a local news outlet to discuss photojournalism ethics and standards with your students.

Press freedoms amid covid-19

The next decade is critical for the future of journalism, and the covid-19 pandemic is deepening existing crises that already threaten free and independent reporting, Reporters Without Borders said April 21 as it released its annual World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries and regions on the level of freedom they afford journalists.

Christophe Deloire, secretary general of the global media advocacy organization (also known as Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF), said the pandemic is exacerbating “the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information”: a geopolitical crisis, a technological crisis, a democratic crisis, a crisis of trust and an economic crisis.

In its overview of the rankings, RSF noted “a clear correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic and a country’s ranking.” China (177th) and Iran (173rd) censored information about the spread of covid-19, RSF said.

The director of RSF’s London office, Rebecca Vincent, rebuked the Chinese government for its lack of truthful reporting when it first had the opportunity to provide information.

“If there had been a free press in China, if these whistleblowers hadn’t been silenced, then this could have been prevented from turning into a pandemic,” she told CNN Business. “Sometimes we can talk about press freedom in a theoretical way, but this shows the impact can at times be physical. It can affect all of our health.”

A spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Geng Shuang, dismissed RSF’s criticism, saying that the organization “has always held deep-rooted prejudice against China” and that its report “is not worth rebutting.”

The United States was 45th this year in the RSF rankings, an improvement of three places from 2019. Norway ranks first, as it has since 2017, and North Korea dropped one place to become the least-free country, as it was in 2018 and 2017 (Turkmenistan occupied last place in 2019). Due to changes brought about by general elections in May 2018, Malaysia had the largest improvement (22 places) to 101st, while Haiti — where protesters have targeted journalists — experienced the most significant drop (21 places) to 83rd.

While RSF’s “global indicator” — its measure of the overall state of press freedom — improved by 0.9 percent in 2020, it has declined by 12 percent since its creation in 2013. According to that indicator, press freedom is in a “very serious situation” in 13 percent of the countries and regions around the world, an increase of two percentage points from 2019.

Discuss: What makes the press in a given country “free”? Why is freedom of the press important? How does the level of press freedoms in the United States compare with what is found other countries? What role does a free press play in democratic societies?

Idea: Ask students to guess which countries around the world have the greatest and least amount of press freedoms. Then have them research their hypotheses using Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 rankings. Finally, help them contact a journalist in one of the countries they researched so they can ask questions by email or request a brief videoconference.

Resource: “Press Freedoms Around the World” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom). Note: This lesson will be updated with the 2020 rankings this summer.