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Monday, Dec. 18, 2017

Note: The Sift is taking the next two weeks off and will return Jan. 8.
Should we stop saying 'fake news'?

After rocketing into the public consciousness over the last year, the phrase “fake news” has become an ideological weapon for politicians around the globe (especially despots) and a clumsy catch-all that falsely equates all forms of misinformation. What was once a way to describe sensationalized fiction engineered to go viral – and earn ad revenue – by tapping into current events or controversies has devolved into an overbroad and, some contend, dangerous term.

  • Discuss: What does the term “fake news” mean? What are the distinctions among various types of misinformation, such as opportunistic fiction, manipulated images, hoaxes, unintentional rumors and journalists’ mistakes? What might we lose by referring to all of these things with one term? What other terms might more accurately describe each type?
  • Idea: Create a taxonomy of types of misinformation. (For inspiration, see Claire Wardle’s “7 Types of Mis- and Disinformation.”)
  • Idea 2: Challenge students to observe and collect examples reflecting the ways the term “fake news” is used. Analyze the results.
  • Act: Visualize the findings of your “fake news” field study, publish them on Twitter and tag journalists, media scholars and others who have debated the term’s meaning and use.
  • Related and relevant:
"If young people don’t believe what they’re reading is true, then their trust will be eroded – and then they could stop believing anything at all. In the long run this means they won’t care about being part of big debates about politics, culture and the society in which they live."
5 things journalists wish everyone knew

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan asked several prominent journalists to name one thing they wish more people understood about journalism. Their responses, along with Sullivan’s own observations, create a ready-made list of news literacy learning objectives for teachers:

  • Anonymous sources are not anonymous to the journalists who use them. A more accurate term might be “unnamed sources.” Also, the use of anonymous sources requires approval from a senior editor, and a single anonymous source is rarely enough to justify a story.
  • News organizations’ editorial boards do not determine how stories are reported. Editorials are commentary reflecting the collective opinions of the editorial board, and a “firewall” separates the board from news reporters to keep those opinions from influencing news coverage.
  • Sources often have motives. A journalist needs to be skeptical about the people who provide information. Some might have personal agendas or might be trying to deceive (as in recent cases here and here).
  • Journalists and news organizations take errors seriously. Being responsible for too many corrections can ruin a journalist’s career.
  • Reputable news organizations are careful. When they follow their own vetting procedures properly, they minimize the possibility of errors.
Journalism is a complex and challenging endeavor, and its practice is certainly imperfect. The vast majority of news organizations have written standards designed to prevent mistakes (as much as possible) and to produce "the best obtainable version of the truth," as Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein has described the aspirational outcomes of journalism. Teaching students about these practices can help them evaluate the news they encounter.
  • Discuss: What kinds of stories might require anonymous sources? What are the pitfalls of using such sources? Are editorials and editorial boards an outdated concept that damages credibility, or are they a valuable source of expert opinion?
  • Idea: Have students learn about journalism’s challenges by staging an unexpected event in your classroom, then asking a small group of students (“reporters,” who have been sent out of the room beforehand) to try to write a news article that describes precisely what happened. Events that provide multiple distractions that tempt “eyewitnesses” to jump to conclusions about what happened work best.
    • Tip: Secretly record the event to establish an authoritative record against which to evaluate their accounts.
  • Act: Invite a local reporter to visit or connect via videoconference to take student questions about the standards of quality journalism. Has the journalist ever had a story corrected? How did the error happen?
  • Related and relevant: “Yes, the Truth Still Matters” (David M. Shribman, The New York Times)

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Viral rumor rundown

  • NO: A mosque in Montreal did not ask a company doing work at a nearby construction site to prohibit women from working there during weekly prayers on Friday, the Islamic holy day.
    • Note: This error by TVA, a French-language television network in Canada, was partly a result of the reporter’s failure to contact mosque leadership before the story was broadcast (and posted online) on Tuesday. It was compounded when TVA failed to update the story, even after admitting two days later that it could not stand by the original report. The network didn’t retract its initial report — or apologize — until Friday.
  • NO: President Donald Trump did not host a party for the National Rifle Association at the White House on Dec. 14, the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook school massacre. YES: The NRA's executive vice president Wayne LaPierre did attend a White House reception that day, as did dozens of other guests.
  • YES: President Trump was called “a pathetic loser” on Anderson Cooper’s Twitter account. NO: The tweet, according to CNN, was sent not by the host of Anderson Cooper 360°, but by someone who used an unattended (and unlocked) phone belonging to his assistant — the only other person with access to Cooper’s Twitter account — while the assistant was at the gym. The network said the tweet was sent from New York City while Cooper was in Washington.
  • NO: Playing Super Mario 64 has not been proven to prevent dementia.
    • Note: Too often, reports on early scientific studies distort the findings and their significance; as time passes, those results are sometimes found to be faulty.
  • NO: A man in New York City was not arrested for selling Chuck E. Cheese's game tokens as bitcoins. This is a made-up report from self-described "fauxtire & satire entertainment website"
  • YES: Political comedian Tim Young recently drew attention to an “interview” of Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa, by conspiracy theorist and Infowars host Alex Jones, who was trying to get the device to admit that it had connections to the CIA. YES: Last Thursday, Late Show host Stephen Colbert trolled Jones by trying to talk to Big Mouth Billy Bass, an animatronic fish.

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

‘Fake news’ for a good cause?

When I taught AP Human Geography, some of my most engaged conversations with students involved discussions of cultural appropriation and identity — especially related to sports teams’ names and mascots. The topic has once again gone viral, this time with the help of imposter news sites.

Last week, several stories were widely promoted across social media, all stating that the National Football League team in Washington had changed its name to the Redhawks. The stories looked like actual news reports from ESPN, Sports Illustrated and The Washington Post, and the URLs were similar enough to those publications’ actual URLs that some readers could have been easily fooled. Because of the longstanding controversy about this particular team name, the stories sparked strong responses for and against the rebranding.

Links within the stories took readers to the “official” Washington Redhawks website, which included this disclaimer:

“This website is a parody and is not endorsed by the Washington football team, the NFL, [team owner] Dan Snyder, or any of their affiliates because, in 2017, these people think it’s still OK to use a racial slur for their mascot. This website was created by Native advocates to help us all imagine how easy and powerful changing the mascot could be. See our press release for more details.”

Each of the fake stories included similar language. A Native American advocacy organization, the Rising Hearts Coalition, said it was responsible for the campaign.

Frequently, bogus material is created simply to generate ad revenue. We’ve also seen it created for humorous purposes, such as hoaxes or pranks. And we’ve seen misinformation created to influence elections. Here, though, we have a different agenda: This “fake news” campaign was created to further the effort to change team names or mascots that many feel are offensive to Native Americans’ history, culture and identity.

This raises an interesting news literacy debate: How much does the intent behind the creation of misinformation matter? Can deception and misinformation be justified in the name of a good cause? Does this tactic ultimately damage the causes that activists are trying to help?

Ask your students what issue they are most passionate about. What would their reaction be if “their” cause came under a cloud of misinformation?

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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