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Monday, June 11, 2018
Note: The June 18 issue will be the last of the 2017-18 school year. We’ll be back on Monday, Sept. 10.
Covering tragedy responsibly

Suicide was in the news last week, along with reminders why this topic warrants special consideration not just by journalists, but by anyone posting or commenting about it online. Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute and a media ethics expert, explained the uniquely careful treatment this subject requires to avoid inciting “suicide contagion”:

  • Do not state the specific means of death, if possible.
  • Include information about warning signs, along with language noting that “treatment and intervention work.”  
  • Choose photographs of the person that are neutral in tone — ones that do not invoke either melancholy or serenity (which could imply that suicide could get a person to “that peaceful place”).
  • Describe suicide trends accurately, without sensationalism.
  • Use the passive voice to minimize the attribution of actions to the individual.
The World Health Organization also has guidelines for media professionals who are reporting on suicide.

McBride and others favor an industry-wide code of practice, and some have called for news organizations to refrain from serving ads alongside coverage of suicide.

  • Note: There are similar calls for omitting the names of mass shooters from coverage of such incidents — but there are compelling arguments for including them.
  • Discuss: Should the coverage of suicides by public figures be regulated in some way? If so, how? If not, why not? Should news organizations withhold some information about suicides? About mass shootings? If so, what information should be withheld, and how should that decision be made?
  • Idea: Have students analyze recent coverage in light of the guidelines in McBride’s piece — or contact local journalists to inquire whether they generally follow them.
Bot, Sockpuppet, Troll

People commonly refer to online “bots” — and even accuse commenters with whom they disagree of being one — but what exactly are they? And what other kinds of accounts should we watch out for? Data scientist Kris Shaffer and technologist Bill Fitzgerald consider these and related questions in a June 5 piece on Medium.

They discuss the differences between social media bots, which are fully automated, and two human-run types of high-disinformation accounts: sockpuppets (fake personas) and trolls (which disinform and bait other users into conflict). Shaffer and Fitzgerald also note the importance of recognizing the characteristics of bots, such as posting content 24 hours a day and sharing or amplifying posts from specific accounts. Bots also often bear stolen profile images, use certain keywords, have suspect names, use accounts that are recently established or show spikes of activity around controversial events (for example, last year’s leak of hacked emails from the campaign of the eventual winner of the French presidency, Emmanuel Macron), followed by periods of inactivity.

Shaffer and Fitzgerald conclude by showing that Twitter’s own audience-targeting functions contain the user data necessary to detect and eliminate most automated accounts.

  • Note: There are tools — such as Botometer, from the Observatory on Social Media, and from University of California, Berkeley students Ash Bhat and Rohan Phadte — that use the criteria above (and more) to try to determine if an account is automated, but confirmation is often impossible.
  • Discuss: What makes an account on social media a “bot”? Have you ever seen or interacted with a bot on social media? How do you know? What is a “sockpuppet” account on social media? Should social media companies ban bots and sockpuppets? How should social media companies limit the effects of trolls?
  • Idea: Have students use this research as the basis for an exploration of bot characteristics. Then challenge them to create their own bot-detection method or paper-based “algorithm” (weighted scores for a variety of characteristics). Finally, put their methods to the test online: How many suspicious accounts can you identify?

Viral rumor rundown

An annotated screenshot of a June 7 tweet from Country Time's official Twitter account implying that a significant number of kids' lemonade stands are being fined because they lack proper permits. Click on the image to see a larger version.

NO: A significant number of kids' lemonade stands have not been fined or otherwise “busted” for operating without a permit. YES: A quick search of local news reports documents about a dozen lemonade stands that have been shut down in some way by local officials in the last decade, often at or near events or as the result of a complaint. YES: Country Time lemonade has established a $60,000 “legal-ade” fund to pay fines assessed on children under the age of 14 for running “illegal” lemonade stands or to reimburse them for permits they obtain to sell lemonade. NO: There is no indication that any of the child-run lemonade stands in the U.S. have actually had to pay a fine. NO: Most U.S. cities do not require kids to have a license to sell lemonade.

  • Idea: The June 7 tweet (annotated above) says the company will donate $1 to the "legal-ade" fund for every retweet the post receives, up to $500,000. Have students follow up on this to see if Country Time makes good on its promise and, later, to try to discover how many (if any) fines and permit fees were actually paid using the fund.

NO: None of the Philadelphia Eagles players took a knee during the national anthem last season as a protest of police brutality. YES: Some Eagles players did kneel in prayer on the field before the national anthem was played.

  • Note: On June 4, Fox News used images of Eagles players kneeling in prayer while reporting on President Donald Trump’s decision to rescind the Super Bowl winner’s traditional invitation to the White House. Trump said the invitation was withdrawn because the players “disagree with their president because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem.” The network apologized for the error the following day.
NO: President Trump was not booed and heckled at his “Celebration of America” event at the White House on June 5. YES: A heckler at the event was booed.
  • Note: April Ryan, American Urban Radio Networks’ White House correspondent and a CNN political analyst, initially tweeted that “reporters on the South Lawn confirmed that @realdonaldtrump was heckled and booed” when he came out for the event. She subsequently deleted that tweet and posted a correction.
NO: There is no evidence that a former homeless camp in Tucson, Arizona, was used as a location for the sexual abuse of children or human trafficking. YES: There is an abandoned homeless camp outside of Tucson. YES: Michael Lewis Arthur Meyer sparked a conspiracy theory when he livestreamed from the site on Facebook, claiming, without evidence, that it was a former “child sex camp.” NO: A child’s skull was not found “near” the site. YES: Eight days after Meyer’s online proclamation, an adult human skull was found 20 miles from the site.
  • Note: Despite Meyer’s history as a provocateur and the lack of evidence, a number of local news outlets reported his claims as possibly true.
  • Misinformation pattern: Adherents of conspiracy theories often engage in motivated reasoning that causes them to see “evidence” where none exists.
NO: Pope Francis was not found guilty of child trafficking and murder.
  • Note: This old rumor was revived and recirculated as the Tucson homeless camp conspiracy theory emerged.
  • Misinformation pattern: The pope is a common focus of false viral rumors, as are claims about the exploitation and abuse of children. Rumors about both subjects can cause confusion, but rumors about child exploitation can actually impede investigations into abuse.


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Archives make headlines

Some of the news last week was about old news. The Obsidian Collection — an organization dedicated to archiving historically black newspapers in the U.S., including the Chicago Defender and The Baltimore Afro-American — launched eight digital exhibits from its archives in partnership with Google Arts & Culture. And two publications owned by Tronc (formerly Tribune Publishing) — The Baltimore Sun and the Chicago Tribune — moved out of their historic newsrooms last week. The Trib’s extensive archives moved with it, but the fate of the Sun’s print archives was less clear.

  • Discuss: Are newspaper archives — whole copies of daily papers, news clippings, front pages, photo negatives or today’s digital equivalent, all going back decades or longer — important to maintain? Why or why not?
  • Idea: Connect with your local newspaper to find out if it has archives and, if so, how far back they go, how they are indexed and how they are stored.
  • Idea 2: Share this list of online newspaper archives from Wikipedia and give students 10 or 15 minutes to find a standards-based news publication that they are familiar with or recognize (perhaps their local newspaper) and explore its archives. As students share their experiences:
    • Discuss: Was news coverage different in the time period you explored than it is now? What, if any, differences did you notice?  
Quick hits
  • The New York Times’ Sopan Deb confirmed that NBA superstar Kyrie Irving still isn’t convinced that Earth is round — but he does believe that everyone has a right to do their own research. (Plus he says it’s fun to get people worked up.)
    • Discuss: Does everyone have a right to come to their own conclusions based on their own research? Why or why not?
  • Starting next month, Facebook will begin funding video newscasts by ABC, Fox, Univision, CNN and other news organizations as part of its Watch feature. It has also posted job openings for contract positions described as “news credibility specialists” — later changed to “news publisher specialists” — to help evaluate the sources of political ads, among other pieces of content. It’s a new phase in Facebook’s “rocky relationship with publishers” as it attempts to fight the amount of misinformation that circulates on the platform of the world’s largest social media company.
  • The New York Times learned Thursday that the FBI had secretly seized several years’ worth of phone and email records of one of its reporters as part of an investigation into leaks. James Wolfe, the former security director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is accused of lying to the FBI about his contacts with journalists. The Times reporter, Ali Watkins, worked at BuzzFeed News when she wrote a 2013 news article that included classified information. Wolfe and Watkins dated for three years. According to Justice Department regulations, “certain law enforcement tools” (such as subpoenas and court orders) are viewed as “extraordinary measures” to be used only after “attempts have been made to obtain the information from alternative sources” and “after negotiations with the affected member of the news media have been pursued and appropriate notice to the affected member of the news media has been provided” (though an exception is given for cases involving national security).
    • Note: While some students may see this as an extension of the Trump administration’s hostility toward the press, the Obama administration aggressively pursued leakers at the expense of press freedoms.
  • President Emmanuel Macron of France proposed legislation to counter the spread of disinformation during the months before an election. His proposal would allow the government to block foreign state-controlled broadcasters that publish false information and require social media platforms to provide ways to flag untrustworthy information. Critics say the legislation, if passed, would threaten freedom of expression.
  • Using the Zika virus as a case study to understand how health-related news spreads online, researchers from the University of South Florida and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies found that rumors had three times more “shares” than verified news. The authors of the paper, published in the American Journal of Health Education, note that such misinformation can hinder prevention efforts.
Please share this newsletter with others who may find this information useful (archives and subscription form here). For more examples and ideas like these, you can follow me on Twitter (@PeterD_Adams). Also follow @NewsLitProject 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 until June 30, 2018. Yes, it’s free.

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