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Learning the real story of covid-19 through comics — and other news literacy lessons

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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 is real and what is not in an age of digital communication in which President Trump 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 6 through 12 that helps prepare the next generation to easily identify misinformation. Checkology is available free to educators, students, school districts and parents. Since 2016, more than 29,000 educators and parents in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., have registered to use the platform. Since August 2020, more than 1,000 educators and parents and over 34,000 students have actively used Checkology.

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

Founded more than a decade ago by Alan Miller, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Los Angeles Times, the News Literacy Project is the leading provider of news literacy education.

It creates digital curriculums and other resources and works with educators and journalists to teach middle and high school students how to recognize news and information to trust — and it 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.

Here’s material from the Nov. 23 Sift:

“A Tale of Two Pandemics: Historical Insights on Persistent Racial Disparities” (Josh Neufeld, Journalist’s Resource).

You may have read, seen or heard news reports about racial disparities regarding covid-19, and the ways in which Black people have been disproportionately affected. But this is a different take on the story — in comic form. Josh Neufeld, a comics journalist, not only features an illustrated version of the actor Idris Elba discussing his covid-19 diagnosis, but he also provides a look over the centuries at how Black people have been the subject of baseless claims that they are immune to diseases and how they still face racial discrimination in the U.S. health care system.

Note: In an interview about his piece, Neufeld defined his role as a comics journalist in this way: “ … I research, report, and tell true-life stories — but with the added component of pictures, word balloons, and captions. The characters I portray are real people, and the text in their word balloons are actual quotes from my interviews with them.”

Discuss: What are the benefits of using comics journalism to convey information versus other forms of journalism? Can you identify the sources Neufeld includes in this piece (see “About this piece” at the bottom of the comic)? How do the 1918 influenza pandemic and the covid-19 pandemic compare?

Idea: Have students read Neufeld’s comic (PDF) as well as section(s) of the research article that served as a source. How do the two reading experiences compare? Which format do students prefer? Why?

Another idea: Ask students to examine this Nov. 21 front page from the Boston Globe and focus in particular on the graphic labeled “Since the election, President Trump has …” What do students think of this graphic, which represents another way that journalists convey information visually? Are the statistics more impactful presented in this format versus in the text of a news report, for instance? Why or why not?

Viral rumor rundown

NO: President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign did not hire the mafia in Philadelphia to fabricate fraudulent ballots.

YES: This is a baseless claim that originated in an unsigned, evidence-free article in the Buffalo Chronicle, a news site with a history of publishing right-wing conspiracy theories.

Note: A BuzzFeed News — Toronto Star investigation also alleged the site’s publisher previously offered to skew political coverage in return for a fee.

NO: The image in this Instagram post is not an authentic tweet from President Donald Trump.

YES: It is an image of a fabricated tweet shared by an account claiming to be a paid ambassador of the conservative student group Turning Point USA.

Note: You can check the authenticity of tweets from President Trump using or ProPublica’s Politwoops website.