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Monday, Dec. 4, 2017
ABC News' error

Last Friday morning, in the aftermath of the news that former national security advisor Michael Flynn would plead guilty to one charge of making false statements to the FBI, ABC News’ chief investigative correspondent, Brian Ross, reported that Flynn was ready to testify that before the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump had instructed him to make contact with the Russians. But what appeared to be a huge break in the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling with the U.S. election was actually a major error. It turned out, as Ross acknowledged that evening on World News Tonight, that the single source he had relied on for his reporting was wrong: Trump had made the request after the election — a legitimate action by a president-elect asking a top aide to explore ways the U.S. and Russia might work together to fight ISIS, among other things.

It took the network hours to correct the story, and in the interim the news rocketed around the information landscape — and not just online. Joy Behar, one of the hosts of ABC’s live morning talk show The View, received a note from a crew member mid-broadcast and read the false claim on air. (Behar also openly celebrated the report.) The View then shared the clip in a tweet (since deleted, along with videos of the announcement).

By the time ABC News corrected the mistake — first issuing a “clarification” before later changing the language to a “correction” — its original false tweet had been retweeted more than 25,000 times, according to The New York Times. The inaccurate news also may have contributed to a 350-point fall in the Dow Jones index (a loss largely recovered by the end of the day).

“We deeply regret and apologize for the serious error we made yesterday,” ABC News said in a statement on Saturday. The network also suspended Ross for four weeks without pay.

  • Note: Brian Ross has made two other high-profile mistakes in breaking news situations: In 2001 he reported nonexistent connections between Iraq and anthrax attacks in the U.S., and in 2012 he reported a false claim that the gunman who killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, James Holmes, had ties to the tea-party movement.
  • Idea: Use this incident to teach students:
    • Breaking news reports are particularly challenging and carry higher stakes because of the attention they garner.
    • Corrections almost never travel as far or as fast as inaccurate information, especially when it’s sensational.
    • Unnamed sources are often an important part of investigative and political reporting, but the information they provide still requires verification.
    • Stories relying on a single source, especially when that source is presented to the public without identification, are notoriously precarious.
    • News organizations often make mistakes. These errors are rarely intentional, but more often are the result of a desire to be first in reporting big stories and therefore prize speed over accuracy.
  • Idea 2: Have students compare ABC’s methodology in the story about Flynn with that of The Washington Post in its report about sexual allegations against Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat from Alabama. ABC News relied on a single unnamed source; the Post found four women who independently — and on the record — made similar charges against Moore, then corroborated what they said by talking with people the women had told years before.
  • Idea 3: Research the way ABC News handled this mistake and debate whether it did everything possible to set the record straight, hold the people responsible accountable and re-establish its credibility. Share your students’ thoughts with ABC News on Twitter or Facebook.
  • Related and relevant: "What journalists can learn from the Brian Ross suspension" (Al Tompkins, Poynter)
Stinger gets stung

Hours after publication of The Washington Post’s Nov. 9 bombshell report on four women’s assertions that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore had pursued them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s (including one sexual encounter), Post reporter Beth Reinhard received an email from “Lindsay James,” hinting that further information on Moore was available.

But what was presented as a tip from a young woman (who subsequently identified herself as Jaime Phillips, her real name) about salacious behavior by Moore was actually a ploy by Project Veritas, a notorious partisan sting operation, to try to get Post reporters to reveal political bias against Moore and, ultimately, to publish a false story.

In the course of a weeks-long exchange, what this deceptive operation actually proved was the rigor of the Post’s verification processes. The Post’s reporters and researchers caught several inconsistencies in Phillips’s story and purported background and quickly connected her to Veritas. Last Wednesday, the Post took the extraordinary step of breaking a commitment to keep her comments off the record — and published a detailed story explaining why.

“We always honor ‘off-the-record’ agreements when they’re entered into in good faith,” said the Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron. “But this so-called off-the-record conversation was the essence of a scheme to deceive and embarrass us. The intent by Project Veritas clearly was to publicize the conversation if we fell for the trap.… We can’t honor an ‘off-the-record’ agreement that was solicited in maliciously bad faith.” 

  • Note: This is the third in a string of dishonest attempts to undermine the credibility of the Post’s reporting on Moore’s past. The first was a tweet from the anonymous Twitter account @umpire43, falsely accusing the Post of paying the four women who came forward to speak about Moore. The second was a series of robocalls to Alabamians from someone impersonating a Post reporter, offering money to women willing to make “damaging remarks” about Moore.
  • Related and relevant: “WaPo flips the script on an attempted ‘sting’” (Pete Vernon, Columbia Journalism Review).
  • Idea 1: Review previous stings from Project Veritas and James O’Keefe, including the 2009 targeting of employees at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN); O’Keefe’s attempt to impugn Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in 2010; and his secret recordings of NPR executives in 2011.
  • Discuss: What differences do you notice between Project Veritas’s approach and that of quality news organizations? What is the primary purpose of Project Veritas’s work? Is it OK to assume a false identity, meet people under false pretenses and tell them false stories to elicit something you feel is true and important? How might approaching a situation like this with a predetermined conclusion affect the outcome?
  • Idea 2: Watch the video of the meeting between Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen and Jaime Phillips.
  • Discuss: How is what The Washington Post reporters did in this video different from what Project Veritas tried to do?

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Viral rumor rundown

  • NO: Temple Baptist Church did not put a message on its outdoor sign endorsing Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. Not only is the image that went viral over the last week a fake, it’s also one of a number of options in an online “fake church sign generator” that lets anyone to create bogus pictures. (At least one instance of this generator has been taken down since this picture spread, but a cached version is still available through Google). You’ll find Temple Baptist Churches around the country — including in Alabama — but the Temple Baptist Church whose sign serves as the template for the fake generator is actually located in Las Cruces, N.M. (hence the phrase “the city of crosses” on the sign itself).
  • YES: Living Way Ministries in Opelika, Ala. did put a message on its outdoor sign endorsing Moore — and comparing him to Jesus. Journalists at Storyful, a subscription social media verification and news agency, verified that the message was authentic by contacting area residents. Storyful was also able to obtain additional images of the same message on the sign from other people.
  • NO: There is no evidence that either Taco Bell or its parent company, Yum! Brands, has made a donation to support Moore’s Senate campaign. YES: Peter Nicholas, a Taco Bell franchise owner in Florida, did contribute to Proven Conservatives PAC, a political action committee that paid for advertisements to promote Moore’s candidacy.
    • This rumor appears to have resulted from a distortion or misinterpretation of a Daily Beast report about the Proven Conservatives PAC’s activities.
  • NO: The tax bill that the Senate passed last week (with only Republicans voting in favor) does not make employee discounts taxable.
    • While this legislation contains plenty of controversial revisions to current tax law, this isn’t one of them. (It still has to go to a conference committee to resolve the differences between the House and Senate versions, so details are likely to change.)
  • YES: Until he was fired from NBC’s Today last week following multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, Matt Lauer was being paid an estimated $25 million a year. YES: As Seattle Times reporter Mike Rosenberg pointed out, that’s enough to hire 500 reporters at an average salary of $50,000 a year (without benefits) — or, as Chicago Tribune reporter Peter Nickeas observed, enough to hire five reporters at every statehouse in the country for $80,000 a year plus $20,000 in benefits.
  • NO: Jay-Z neither praised Satan nor claimed to be part of an exclusive group that worships Satan.
    • This fabrication comes from a counterfeit news site with a history of falsely attributing outrageous tweets to celebrities to gather clicks and make money.
  • NO: A viral video retweeted by President Donald Trump last week does not show a young Muslim migrant assaulting a boy on crutches. It does show a violent attack, but the assailant was born in the Netherlands and his religion is not known. He was arrested and punished in the Dutch criminal justice system.
    • Use this to remind students that they should be especially skeptical of viral rumors about controversial topics — such as often-seen claims that Muslim migrants or refugees have attacked residents of Western countries or forcibly tried to impose Sharia (Islamic law). Such claims should always be checked thoroughly.
  • NO: The video screenshot below does not show offended Muslims attacking a Christmas tree in a mall in a Western country. YES: The video shows people climbing a Christmas tree in a mall in Cairo, Egypt, in November 2016. The tree was designed to be climbed to retrieve gifts hung in its branches as part of a celebration.
Can Facebook auto-flag suicide risks?

In a blog post last Monday, Facebook announced that it has been experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI) trained to identify patterns in posts and comments associated with people who might be contemplating suicide or other self-harm. The AI analyzes text (a comment such as “Are you OK?”) and patterns (such as a sudden spike in comments expressing concern) and flags worrisome activity for review by Facebook’s Community Operations team, which includes specialists trained in suicide prevention. Facebook says it’s also improving the ability of those specialists to contact first responders when necessary. The company says it has been working for more than a decade on suicide prevention tools, with assistance from mental health organizations.

  • Note: Facebook has tested this new feature in the U.S. and plans to expand it worldwide — but not to nations in the European Union. It has not explained why, but legal and privacy experts speculate that the EU’s strict privacy laws may be the reason.
  • Discuss: Is this a good move by Facebook? Is using computers to “learn” patterns that might indicate self-harm an invasion of privacy? How have experts reacted to this news? Idea: Research EU privacy laws and compare them to U.S. privacy laws. Have students take sides on the two systems and debate.

In this section, NLP's director of education, John Silva, NBCT, offers his suggestions for connecting news literacy with civic engagement and action.

What's going on with ______?

What cause do you care about most? What are your elected officials doing about it? How much news coverage is it getting? Tracking the intricacies of government action and the legislative process can be tough. Fortunately, teachers and students have several great resources for exploring the actions of elected officials.

  • ProPublica’s Represent, launched last year, “provides information on lawmakers, the bills they consider and the votes they take (and miss).” The Represent home page lists the most recent votes on significant legislation before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives (and includes links to all votes in each chamber), along with a search function for lawmakers’ press releases. Users can track individual legislators, specific bills and issues, and all actions taken on those matters. You can also filter to track members of Congress from a specific state.
  • The independent civics site GovTrack lets users search by name and issue area and will send alerts for specific legislative activity.
  • The federal government’s offers similar searches, and also includes most-viewed bills, a summary of the day’s legislative activity and schedules for committee hearings.
Each of these sites provides guidance for contacting elected officials and resources for understanding the legislative process.

What can students do with this information? 

  • They can search for legislation and for lawmakers’ statements related to an issue important to them, then use that information to search for news coverage and analyze how the issue is being covered.
  • They might consider creating a shared spreadsheet to track news reports from multiple sources, with dates and headlines.
  • If students find insufficient or inaccurate coverage, they can let news organizations know.
  • They can also write letters to the editor supporting or opposing pending legislation.
  • If a bill is up for a vote, students can encourage people to contact their legislators.

These tools make a complex system easier to navigate and help students become a new generation of informed, empowered voters.

Please share this newsletter with others who may find this information useful (subscribe here). For more examples and ideas like these, you can follow me on Twitter (@PeterD_Adams). Also follow @TheNewsLP and @MrSilva.

If you have suggestions for future issues of The Sift, please share them here.

If you're looking for engaging and effective news literacy resources, check out NLP's checkology® virtual classroom. We’re giving away student licenses for 1:1 functionality for the rest of the 2017-18 school year. Yes, it’s free.
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