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Joe Rogan, vaccine deniers and other news literacy lessons

Joe Rogan introduces fighters during the UFC 269 ceremonial weigh-in at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Dec. 10, 2021. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

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.

The Sift

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

Top picks

1. Vaccine deniers are embracing Robert Malone, an infectious-disease researcher who pushes widely discredited claims about coronavirus vaccines, as a credentialed voice who affirms their distrust of the overwhelming scientific consensus about the pandemic. Malone — who in the late 1980s made a discovery that contributed to research on mRNA vaccines — was catapulted into the public eye after he was featured on “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast in December.

  • Discuss: Why has Malone gained such prominence among vaccine deniers? What role do Malone’s credentials play in his popularity among this group? What do other experts with Malone’s credentials say about his claims? What does it take for consensus to emerge among scientists?


Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to further explore the impact Malone has had on misinformation about covid-19 and the coronavirus vaccines.

2. Russia has been pushing disinformation about Ukraine since 2014, but American intelligence officials and other experts told the New York Times that they’ve seen an increase in false propaganda narratives in recent months. Russia is also trying to use information influence operations to exacerbate social divisions in Ukraine — similar to its efforts to polarize American voters in 2016.

3. Children’s media and news programs have faced a tough task in covering the pandemic and explaining it to a young audience. But they’ve done so with “a level of clarity and directness in their pandemic coverage that can be hard to find” in news sources for more adult audiences, writes Kate Cray of the Atlantic. “Sesame Street,” for instance, teamed up with CNN to tackle coronavirus vaccine questions after officials recommended the shot for children ages 5 to 11. Kids’ media, Cray notes, shines for being straightforward, offering ample context and answering questions authentic to its audience.

  • Idea: Examine several of the kids’ news stories and segments cited in the Atlantic piece. How do they approach the news? Compare these stories with news coverage for older audiences. Consider factors such as word choice, context and tone. How does kids’ news take into account “children’s specific news needs"? Does this coverage still aspire to journalism standards?
  • Another idea: Ask students to find a recent news report on an issue they care about. How would they repackage or rework this coverage for younger audiences?

Viral rumor rundown

No, this “amazing” perpetual motion sculpture isn’t real

NO: The “sculpture” in this video is not real.

YES: It is a 3D animation created by the digital artist Andreas Wannerstedt, who is known for creating perfectly synchronized animations.

YES: Engagement bait accounts — or accounts that share “amazing” content optimized to go viral — frequently share digital art out of context.

YES: Other pieces of Wannerstedt’s digital art have also been presented out of context by similar accounts.

NewsLit takeaway: Photos and video purporting to capture “amazing” aspects of the natural world — everything from supposedly cute or unusual animals and stunning (but fake) space photos to incredible (and nonexistent) geological formations and feats of physics — often go viral. After all, how tempting is it to “like” a video of fast tortoises or other seemingly incredible aspects of nature? But be aware that these types of photos and videos are commonly used as “engagement bait” by accounts seeking to build up large social media audiences.