This 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, formerly a Pulitzer Prize-winning 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, and 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 Jan. 10 edition of the Sift:

Dig deeper: Don’t miss this week’s classroom-ready resource.

Top picks

1. A year after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the role of misinformation in fueling the historic attack continues to come into clearer focus, as does the extent to which falsehoods still shape Americans’ divided views of the deadly riot. Misinformation swept across podcasts, Facebook — as documented in this new investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post — and other social media platforms ahead of the attack, allowing false narratives to take root and spread. Some news organizations recently published fact-checking roundups that debunk persistent falsehoods and underscore the ongoing threat misinformation poses to democracy.

  • Idea: Ask students to make a list of facts — or things they think are facts — about the Jan. 6 insurrection. Then, challenge students to fact-check each item on their list using credible sources. Discuss their findings. Did they learn anything surprising? How can they know whether a source is credible? As a class, compile a shared list of fact-checked statements about the events of Jan. 6.


2. TikTok’s suggestion algorithm doesn’t just learn what intrigues us, it can also “teach” us a flattened and distorted version of ourselves, argues science journalist Eleanor Cummins in a Jan. 3 opinion piece published by Wired. Though the platform sometimes surfaces revealing aspects of our interests — even those of which we’re not entirely aware — it also has the tendency to “sort us into ever more rigid identities,” reducing our conception of ourselves to just those aspects that help the algorithm target us with ads.

  • Discuss: Has a suggestion algorithm ever revealed something to you about yourself that surprised you? What aspects of you as a person can content algorithms never learn? Do you agree that frequent social media users might embrace a version of themselves that content algorithms reflect? Why or why not? Why is it important to remember that “TikTok’s real motivation isn’t psychoanalysis, it’s profit?” Does this motivation change your view of the videos it recommends? Will it change the way you interact with the platform?


Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to help students think critically about how TikTok’s recommendation algorithm can affect its users.

3. This short video from the Pew Research Center examines declining trust in news and shows how changes across the news industry in recent decades have impacted this dynamic.


Viral rumor rundown

NO: Betty White did not say that she got her coronavirus vaccine booster on Dec. 28, 2021.

YES: This is a fabricated quote.

NO: The quote never appeared in the report from Crow River Media that is included in this viral screenshot.

YES: White’s agent also told the Associated Press that she did not receive a coronavirus vaccine booster on Dec. 28 and that the quote was fake.

NewsLit takeaway: Propagators of anti-vaccine disinformation previously have seized on celebrity deaths — including baseball great Hank Aaron; boxer Marvin Hagler; Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh; and rapper DMX — to falsely impugn the safety of coronavirus vaccines. Remember: Vaccinated people also die of other causes and a significant portion of the population, including celebrities, are vaccinated. Posts that falsely connect high-profile deaths to vaccinations are often attempting to exploit the public’s emotions to generate fear and distrust. This particular rumor has another red flag: The fake quote has been added to a screenshot of a social media preview for an actual article in which the quote never appeared. This lends the fabricated quote an air of authenticity without providing a clickable link, making it less likely that people will check the alleged source to confirm that the quote is authentic.

NO: The actor Ben Affleck did not wear a shirt that compared MAGA supporters to Confederates and Nazis, calling them all “losers.”

YES: The authentic photo of Affleck — which was taken in 2015 — shows that he was actually wearing a plain T-shirt.

NewsLit takeaway: Digitally altering celebrities’ shirts in photos by adding political messages is a common disinformation tactic designed to spread by appealing to those who support the message. In many cases, the provocative T-shirts can be easily found for sale online, which is one possible motivation for their creation and circulation.

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