Here’s the latest installment of a regular feature I’ve been running for several years: lessons from the nonprofit News Literacy Project (NLP), which aims to teach students and the public how to sort fact from fiction in our digital — and contentious — age. There has never been a time in recent U.S. history when this skill has been as important as now, because of the spread of rumors and conspiracy theories on social and partisan media sites.
NLP 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 in the country. 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 nearly 22,000 subscribers. Published weekly during the school year, it explores timely examples of misinformation, addresses media and press freedom topics, explores 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.
NLP has an e-learning platform, Checkology, that 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 the NLP’s resources and programs, are free. Since 2016, more than 42,000 educators and 375,000 students in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and more than 120 other countries have registered to use the platform.
Here’s material from the Nov. Oct. 31 edition of the Sift:
1. The top editor at Oregon’s largest newspaper recently apologized for the paper’s historically racist and xenophobic coverage. The public apology introduces the Oregonian’s “Publishing Prejudice” series, a project prompted by the 2020 murder of George Floyd that examines the 161-year-old daily newspaper’s racist legacy. The Oregonian found that its own news coverage and editorials excused lynching, opposed equal rights, celebrated the Chinese Exclusion Act, supported the World War II imprisonment of people of Japanese descent and more. In her apology, editor Therese Bottomly described racist coverage from the paper’s archives as “Revolting. Painful. Indefensible.”
• Discuss: What do you think of the Oregonian editor’s apology? Why do you think she felt an apology was necessary? When news organizations publish apologies for their historically racist coverage, is it a meaningful way to rebuild trust? How does past news coverage affect communities today?
• Idea: Have students search their local newspaper archives at Newspapers.com [login required], or have them explore one of the newspapers featured in this database of harmful historical coverage in the United States. Examine front pages from different eras and discuss how non-White residents are covered (or not covered). For whom did the paper write? How has news coverage changed over the decades?
◦ “On Atonement: News outlets have apologized for past racism. That should only be the start.” (Alexandria Neason, Columbia Journalism Review).
◦ “New Database Expands the Scope of ‘Printing Hate’ Series” (The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism).
Use this think sheet to better understand the Oregonian’s past racist coverage and how the newspaper is addressing the legacy it leaves.
2. The perceived threat of fentanyl-laced Halloween candy has some elected officials and media outlets ringing alarm bells, but doctors and drug experts say the warnings are exaggerated. Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, has tracked news reports of contaminated treats for decades and found no evidence of any child seriously injured or killed by treats received during trick-or-treating. While “rainbow fentanyl” is made to look like candy, no drug cartels are known to have targeted Halloween candy.
• Discuss: What is a zombie rumor? Do you think the motives of some people who pushed this rumor are different from the motives of concerned parents who shared it? What other kinds of overhyped, fear-based rumors have you encountered? Why do you think this kind of rumor has spread so widely — and for so many decades?
• Resource: “Misinformation” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).
• Related: “Scary drug-laced Halloween candy rumor spreads without evidence” (Dan Evon, NLP’s RumorGuard).
3. A communal digital Día de Muertos altar created by the Los Angeles Times last year was so popular — drawing more than 1,000 submissions — that the paper is bringing it back this year. Readers can make their own digital ofrenda with photos and messages to celebrate and mourn loved ones who have died.
• Discuss: Why did the Día de Muertos digital altar resonate with Times readers? How can newsrooms better connect with diverse audiences?
• Related: “Opinion | Lessons from North Carolina on covering local immigration news” (Liz Robbins, Poynter).
NO: Ballot request applications sent to deceased people are not evidence that it is easy to cast votes on their behalf.
YES: Every state has procedures to remove dead people from voter rolls on a regular basis, and applications sent in on behalf of a dead person are routinely rejected.
YES: It is a crime to attempt to obtain a ballot in the name of a dead person. On rare occasions, people do try to vote on behalf of dead people and are charged with voter fraud.
YES: Every state has additional checks — including signature verification and another check against updated voter rolls — to prevent fraud.
NewsLit takeaway: Election misinformation narratives often cause people to misinterpret ordinary aspects of elections and can become self-sustaining as they spread. Third parties that send ballot applications are less diligent than state officials about keeping their records updated, and they sometimes send applications to ineligible voters, adding to a widespread but misguided perception that votes are commonly cast on behalf of dead people. When it comes to staying informed about election security, seek out credible, verified information and official sources rather than viral claims found on social media.
NO: The movement of Katy Perry’s eye in this video of her performing at a Las Vegas concert is not related to a coronavirus vaccine side effect.
YES: The incident sparked other conspiratorial speculation about robotic clones and even connections to antisemitic conspiracy theories.
YES: Perry has addressed the incident and explained that it was a “party trick” for her act.
NO: “Eye glitches” are not a known coronavirus vaccine side effect.
NewsLit takeaway: Anti-vaccination trolls often try to find ways to attribute strange viral moments to the coronavirus vaccines, but such claims lack evidence and have the potential to spread harm. This video of Perry’s eye “glitching” during an October 2022 concert was no exception. As the video racked up millions of views, many people dismissed the most likely explanations in favor of their preferred conspiratorial ideas. While wide-ranging, these conspiratorial claims all had one critical characteristic in common: a complete lack of evidence.
You can find this week’s rumor examples to use with students in these slides.
• The man charged with attempting to kidnap House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and assaulting her husband, Paul, was steeped in QAnon and other fringe conspiratorial beliefs. Also, Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, pushed misinformation about the attack in a since-deleted tweet.
• A new ProPublica investigation found that Google’s ad business funds disinformation across the globe by regularly placing ads on non-English-language websites that push falsehoods on topics such as elections, vaccines, covid-19 and climate change.
• When it comes to trust in news, the Pew Research Center found that adults under 30 now trust information on social media almost as much as they trust national news organizations.
• The New York Times Learning Network rounded up eight films for students about digital media, which cover topics including online privacy for children and how conspiracy theories spread.
• In the Associated Press’s first TikTok, the global news agency acknowledged its 176-year history of delivering the news from Telegraph➡️Teletype➡️TikTok.