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Monday, Jan. 8, 2018

Note: The next issue of The Sift will be sent on Tuesday, Jan. 16.
Fire and Fury, access and ethics

Since the first excerpts of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House leaked, news about the book has been all but unavoidable. It had been scheduled for release tomorrow, but after the leaks — and a batch of cease-and-desist letters last Thursday from President Donald Trump’s lawyers to Wolff, to Henry Holt & Co. (the publisher) and to onetime Trump strategist Steve Bannon, whom Wolff quotes throughout — the book was released on Friday. Since then, the descriptions of the Trump White House have dominated the national conversation and sparked an ongoing debate among media thinkers about access, ethics and standards of journalism.

In short, Wolff achieved an astonishing level of access to the White House. Then, it seems, he “burned” that access by including in the book many incendiary things that he learned from some of his more than 200 sources — and that the speaker may not have wanted published. Then, in recounting what he learned, he gave himself more latitude than traditional journalism standards would ever allow; in fact, according to his author’s noteWolff describes Fire and Fury as “a version of events I believe to be true” based on the many — and often conflicting — accounts of events he heard from White House staff. These are tactics and methods for which he is well known.

  • Related:
  • Discuss: What role did traditional coverage of the Trump White House play in Wolff’s book? What might happen if all reporters used Wolff’s methods?
  • Idea: Harness students’ questions and interest about Fire and Fury to spark inquiry about the complicated and precarious role that access sometimes plays in reporting.
  • Note: Often, reporters can learn important details about sensitive topics only by getting sources to talk “on background,” meaning that the information provided can be used but the source cannot be identified, or “off the record,” meaning that the information provided was given to further a reporter’s understanding of a subject and can be used only to seek verification of its accuracy from other sources who agree to some sort of attribution. (These explanations are from the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at the University of Missouri’s journalism school; individual news organizations may have their own slightly different definitions.)

    Other times, reporters seeking access to elusive sources, or exclusive settings, are pressured to accept conditions on their reporting — such as a prohibition on pursuing certain questions or topics,  or even allowing the subject of an interview to approve quotes. When journalists who have made such agreements write or broadcast a piece that doesn’t honor these conditions, they are said to be “burning” their access or their sources. Many reporters rely on maintaining relationships with sources in privileged positions to identify important stories. If they “burned” those sources on one story, they would lose that access and, possibly, leads on future stories. However, if they protect their access too much, they can compromise their obligation to the public.
  • Note 2: The conversations about ethics and access prompted by Fire and Fury are evocative of the debate sparked by an unexpected one-on-one interview that Michael Schmidt of The New York Times landed with President Trump on Dec. 28. The Times quickly published excerpts of the interview, along with an analysis of it that was met with criticism for what was seen by many as a failure to press Trump about his statements (which included a number of outright falsehoods), and for publishing them without sufficient context. Others defended Schmidt’s approach and pointed out the value of documenting such claims. In an article the next day, Schmidt explained the circumstances behind the interview, including the unexpected nature of it, and the Times published a fact check detailing “at least 10 false or misleading claims” made by Trump during the interview.
  • Discuss: Is there value in Schmidt’s interview, even though he didn’t challenge the president on his statements? Should Schmidt have conducted the interview differently? What follow-up questions would you have asked?
  • Idea: Use the excerpts from the transcript of the interview to re-enact it with groups of students in class. What follow-up questions would they insert, and where?

Do you want to help your students make sense of the torrent of news and information streaming through their online worlds?

NLP's winter online PD series, Teaching News Literacy, starts Jan. 23.

See details and registration here.

Viral rumor rundown

  • YES: A change in state law now permits rural gas stations in Oregon to let customers pump their own gas 24 hours a day, expanding a 2015 law that allowed self-service between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. NO: Viral images of people incorrectly pumping gas (below) are not related to the new law.

Credit to Jane Lytvynenko of BuzzFeed News for flagging these images.

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Facebook's 'fake news' year

An analysis by BuzzFeed News found that the 50 most viral hoax (or “fake”) news stories on Facebook in 2017 generated more shares, reactions and comments than the top 50 hoaxes of 2016. They also received dramatically more engagement than any corrective posts by partners in Facebook’s fact-checking program.

In addition, BuzzFeed found that there were fewer fabricated stories about U.S. politics in 2017’s top 50 than in 2016's, while there were more outrageous crime-themed stories. Representatives from Facebook say they are confident that new strategies — such as presenting algorithmically suggested fact checks as related articles — will more effectively combat hoaxes in 2018.

  • Note: BuzzFeed reporters also highlighted several important “fake news” trends, including the rise of create-your-own-“prank-news” generators, the continued expansion of “fake news” website networks and the strategic use of satire disclaimers by some “fake news” purveyors to avoid recent crackdowns by some digital ad networks.
  • Discuss: How can the average social media user fight fabricated stories designed to look real?
  • Idea: Have students use the BuzzSumo Chrome extension to analyze engagement gaps on Facebook between examples of misinformation and the corresponding fact checks.
  • Act: Use your favorite visualization tool to create a compelling representation of the engagement gap for examples of misinformation on social media.
  • Act 2: Survey friends and family to find out why they think that viral rumors, “fake news” and hoaxes tend to generate more engagement than the fact checks that debunk them.
  • Related: “I Helped Popularize The Term ‘Fake News’ And Now I Cringe Every Time I Hear It” (Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed News)
The story of fake news symbolizes how our current information environment operates and is manipulated, how reality itself is shaped and bent. It’s a testament to the fact that today a phrase or image can come to mean anything you want it to, so long as you have enough followers, propagators, airtime, attention — and the ability to coordinate all of them.

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

Wikipedia as a fact-checking tool

Despite concerns about its credibility (since anyone can edit the site), Wikipedia can be one of the most reliable and up-to-date sources for basic factual information — and a key tool, when used properly, for fact-checking. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Its Five Pillars, which emphasize standards for articles written from a neutral point of view.
  • Wikipedia’s belief in the benefits of open, live collaboration among everyone willing to contribute.
  • The volunteer work of more than 32 million registered users and more than a thousand administrators moderating and verifying content.

Students are going to use Wikipedia. We need to teach them to use it properly.

Consider starting with the guide to Contributing to Wikipedia, and review how items make their way into the online encyclopedia. Continue with Article development, Core content policies, Writing better articles and Basic copyediting. Understanding how articles are created and improved also can help students to evaluate Wikipedia entries.

Fun fact: Any time a Wikipedia page is edited from a computer within the network of the U.S. Congress, a Twitter bot (@congressedits) tweets a screenshot showing the page’s original and edited versions. Ask your students why someone would create such a bot. Why should we care if a member of Congress or a person on a congressional staff is editing Wikipedia pages?
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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