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.

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 in this piece.

The material in this post comes from the organization’s newsletter for educators, the Sift, 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 general 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, 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’s material from the Nov. 15 edition of the Sift:

Top picks

1. A new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s coronavirus vaccine monitor project underscores the widespread nature of pandemic misinformation. Researchers polled American adults about eight common vaccine falsehoods and found that 78 percent have heard at least one of them, and either believe it to be true or are uncertain whether it is true. The study also found that false beliefs about covid-19 are “correlated with both vaccination status and partisanship,” and that the share of people who hold four or more covid-19 misconceptions is greatest among those who trust overtly partisan media outlets such as Newsmax and One America News (see graphic above). The study also points out, however, that it is unclear if these news sources cause the false beliefs or if they simply attract people who “are predisposed to believe certain types of misinformation.”

2. Sports-related news is edging out political coverage in Americans’ news diets — a big change from a year ago. Sports news, particularly NFL coverage, dominated the top 10 news topics in October 2021, according to page view data pulled from 1,400 news websites by the content recommendation company Taboola. By contrast, data shows many of the nation’s top stories a year ago were related to hard news topics, such as “Trump,” “Biden,” “George Floyd” and “White House.”

  • Discuss: Why do you think Americans are tuning in to more sports news and less political news than a year ago? Why is it important to stay informed about different kinds of topics and current events? What does a healthy and balanced news diet look like?
  • Idea: Ask students to keep a reflection log of their news consumption habits for a week. What news topics are in their reflection log? What were the most common topics? The least common? Why? Do they notice any gaps in their news diet? How could they diversify their news diet (in terms of news topics, news sources, etc.)?
  • Resources: “What Is News?” and “Be the Editor” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).
  • Related: “Scientists Fight a New Source of Vaccine Misinformation: Aaron Rodgers” (Ken Belson and Emily Anthes, the New York Times).

Dig Deeper: Use this think sheet to help students examine the recent controversy over Aaron Rodgers’ vaccination status as they reflect on what sources the public should consult for coronavirus vaccine information.

Viral rumor rundown

NO: This clinic sign is not authentic.

YES: The text in the white box has been doctored.

NO: The sign is not from a vaccine clinic for children.

YES: The sign — which actually indicated in Spanish inside the white box that the vaccines were available without an appointment — was displayed at a vaccine clinic hosted at New England Patriots training camp last summer.

An authentic photo of the vaccination clinic hosted at New England Patriots training camp last summer in Foxborough, Mass. The sign appears in a number of videos shot at the event, including this news report (at 30 seconds) from CBS Boston.

NewsLit takeaway: Text on signs is easy to alter with photo-manipulation software and is a common target of bad actors online. In this case, the photo was also presented in a false context, circulating online shortly after the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. Be wary of anti-vaccine rhetoric that seeks to propagate fear about the safety of the vaccine for kids, which is expected to surge as the vaccine rollout among children progresses.

Related:

NO: The video in this tweet — which purports to show an unruly passenger on a flight demanding a seat change because another passenger refused to produce vaccine documentation — is not authentic.

YES: It is a short fictional film titled “Covid Flight” in which the passenger is eventually asked to leave by a pilot who also says, “There will be no discrimination on my aircraft … vaccinated or unvaccinated, we should respect each other.”

YES: A clip from “Covid Flight” also went viral out of context on TikTok, where one post garnered more than 35 million views and 4.5 million likes.

YES: The film was produced by a social influencer named Richard Williams, who has a history of creating realistic videos that are “designed to go viral” and often are published without disclosures that they’ve been staged.

NewsLit takeaway: The pandemic has prompted a spate of real incidents involving conflict over covid-19 safety protocols on airlines, and raw cellphone videos of unruly passengers often circulate on social media — so it’s not surprising that many people who encounter this video might initially believe it’s authentic. This vignette also resonated with people who are resistant to coronavirus vaccine mandates and safety protocols because it caricatured the “passenger’s” concerns about her unvaccinated seatmate and framed her request for a new seat as “discrimination.” Staged videos that aren’t clearly labeled as fiction have become an “engagement bait” trend on TikTok — and one company has gone so far as to create “fictional influencers.”

Discuss: Is it unethical to publish video of a staged skit to social media without clear labels disclosing that it’s not real? What types of emotions and biases might be inflamed by this video? Does it matter if people believe that this situation is real? Why or why not?

You can find this week’s rumor examples to use with students in these slides.