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. There has not been a time in recent U.S. history when this skill has been as important because of social and partisan media’s ability to spread rumors and lies.
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 here.
The material in this post comes from the Sift, the organization’s newsletter for educators, 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 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 April 25 edition of the Sift:
How did video of a nurse fainting become the fixation of a viral conspiracy theory? In “Tiffany Dover is Dead*,” part of a new NBC News podcast series, senior reporter Brandy Zadrozny traces how Dover’s experience fainting on camera after receiving her first coronavirus vaccine shot in December 2020 soon spiraled into an online obsession, with many falsely claiming she had died. Zadrozny shines a light on the dangers of misinformation and shows how one person’s story was “hijacked by total strangers” to sow doubt about vaccine safety. (The first three episodes — Needle In, The Bog and Who Does That? — are available.)
• Discuss: Why do conspiracy theories appeal to people? Why do you think some people remain convinced that Dover is dead when we know she’s not?
• Related: “Their mom died of COVID. They say conspiracy theories are what really killed her” (Geoff Brumfiel, NPR).
Viral rumor rundown
NO: The inflation rates in this meme shared by Eric Trump are not accurate.
YES: The meme slightly understates the actual rate of inflation for some of the Trump years listed and significantly overstates the rate of inflation for the two Biden years.
YES: According to the Associated Press, many economists cite government spending, including President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, as one of the factors that have “caused inflation to run higher than it otherwise would.”
Figures published in a USA Today graphic show the accurate rates of inflation from 2017 through March 2022, calculated by monthly averages and year-end rates.
NewsLit takeaway: Viral rumors about rising costs strike a quick emotional chord with many people, often resonating with real concerns about household finances. This meme also might “feel true” to many people because it contains a seed of truth: Inflation has rapidly increased over the past year. But it is always a good idea to check out viral memes about complicated issues to get a fuller picture — especially concerning those memes that explicitly discourage further inquiry (“Nothing more needs to be said” and “The facts are clear”).
NO: The woman in this viral photo did not blow up 52 Russian tanks during the present Russian invasion of Ukraine.
YES: This photo also appears in this March 2021 article published on the Ukrainian military’s news website, which identifies the woman as Maj. Victoria Palamarchuk, a military doctor.
NewsLit takeaway: Falsehoods touting alleged Ukrainian heroism have circulated online since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. While it is impossible to know for sure where this particular falsehood originated, it is important to be aware that people who use misinformation to “chase clout” and build influence online often exploit topics that invoke strong public opinions. Amid broad-based global support for Ukraine during this war, these types of hopeful, positive claims are optimized for quick likes and shares. However, they do not help or support Ukraine and may even bolster Russia’s attempts to cast a fog of doubt over all information about the war.
You can find this week's rumor examples to use with students in these slides.
- An open letter signed by dozens of organizations representing journalists is calling on the Pulitzer Prizes — one of journalism’s most prestigious awards — to help “improve the diversity and transparency in the news industry” by requiring news organizations to participate in an annual diversity survey (or similar industry data collection) to qualify for an award.
- Old videos showing military conflicts, parades and even airsoft battles continue to proliferate on TikTok, where they are passed off as footage of the war in Ukraine, often for clout or for donations on fake live streams.
- Less than six hours of classroom instruction can help students avoid the traps of misinformation and better evaluate online sources, according to a new study from researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education.
- To better understand conservatives’ distrust of the news media, researchers conducted focus groups and interviews with 25 people who identified as conservatives and found that their anger toward mainstream journalism was rooted in “their deeper belief that the American press blames, shames, and ostracizes” them.
- Can watching a different news network change what people believe? A new study on partisan media suggests the answer is “yes.” Researchers paid Fox News viewers to watch CNN instead and found that the switch affected participants’ beliefs, attitudes and “overall political views, although viewers returned to Fox once the study ended.
Here are some earlier lessons: