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Monday, Dec. 11, 2017
Blocked by elected officials?

Voices in conversations about important public policies are effectively being silenced, according to the investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica, because of the decision by some governors’ and federal agencies’ social media accounts to block some users. In a report released last Friday, ProPublica concluded that at least some of the blocks were unwarranted, and one federal court has ruled that public officials who block users for criticism are violating the First Amendment.

  • Discuss: Should public officials and government agencies be able to block users on social media? What criteria should apply?
  • Idea: Use ProPublica’s guide to investigating the block lists of public officials to help students explore whether their local politicians, such as the mayor or the school board, are blocking anyone. Remember, government offices can take months to respond to freedom of information requests.
  • Act: Analyze any block lists you get, and share your results with local reporters and with ProPublica.
Clickbait 'chum'

A “chum box” (section devoted to paid placements from
the third-party ad service Outbrain) on

The issue of public trust in journalism is so complex that it is often difficult for educators to find an easy way to discuss it with their students. But as tech journalist Patrick Seitz points out in a recent blog post, “chum boxes” — portions of websites turned over to native advertising engines like Taboola, Outbrain and RevContent in exchange for a share of revenue — are a glaringly easy place to start. These “content recommendation” (clickbait ad placement) services are among the web’s worst offenders when it comes to leeching onto the credibility of news organizations to peddle fake images, false claims and misleading headlines. If this tactic sounds familiar, it should; it’s also the way that counterfeit (or “fake”) news websites operate.

  • Discuss: Why do some websites, including some news websites, use services like Taboola, Outbrain and RevContent? Do sites that you visit use such services? Do any local news sites use them? Do you think this is OK, or do you find it problematic?
  • Idea: Designate a two-week period for students to document chum boxes when they encounter them (by saving screenshots and the URLs of the hosting sites), then collect that information and analyze it. How many news websites are in the collection?
  • Act: Contact news organizations that use chum boxes for revenue and ask them: Why do you use them? Can you afford to discontinue using them?

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Viral rumor rundown

  • NO: Despite Democratic leaders’ claims to the contrary, the tax bill that the Senate passed on Dec. 2 does not provide a tax break on private jets (and does not pay for any such benefit through cuts to education and health care spending).
  • YES: The Cambridge News, a UK newspaper, really did have “100PT SPLASH HEADING HERE” as its lead headline in the Dec. 6 issue.
  • NO: Wisconsin state lawmakers did not pass legislation designed to spur economic growth by legalizing marijuana. NO: The website where this story appeared last week is not affiliated in any way with ABC News, though its URL ( may lead readers to think that it is.
    • Note: Teach students about suspicious URLs, like those with hyphenated additions to well-known site addresses.
  • NO: There was no forecast for a foot of snow in Indiana over the weekend.
    • Note: This rumor was aided by the use of a visual element taken out of context: an old forecast for heavy snow from 2014.
  • YES:  Facebook has suspended the accounts of some women who posted derogatory remarks about men, even though some of the posts were made in a comedic context or in response to harassment.
  • NO: The bicyclist who gave President Donald Trump’s motorcade a “single-finger salute” in late October did not get 453,673 job offers. That claim comes from a piece of subtly labeled satire posted last week on Medium. YES:  She did get fired from her job as a marketing executive. YES:  A GoFundMe campaign to support her has raised more than $130,000.
    • Note: Remind students that anyone can post to the blogging site Medium and that the quality of information there varies widely.
    • Discuss: What’s the difference between this piece of satire and counterfeit or “fake” news? How can people publish satire in a way that prevents it from being mistaken for verified information?
  • NO: A napping morgue employee was not cremated. This is a hoax from World News Daily, a counterfeit news site.
  • NO: Teens are not using a common hand gesture as a secret signal that they want to buy drugs.
'How to be a journalist'

The Washington Post’s new video series, How to be a journalist, is designed to explain the process of reporting and to combat cynicism about journalists’ motives.

The first installment, released last Friday, looks at the process behind the Post’s Nov. 9 report detailing allegations by four women that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, as an assistant district attorney in his 30s, had pursued them when they were teenagers — and had sexually assaulted one of them when she was 14.

  • Note: This episode is rich in news literacy lessons, including how journalists locate sources in a position to know key details of a story, how early conversations with sources may be off the record, and how journalists should check every detail of a story. In this case, for example, the reporters checked one source’s accuracy by comparing property records against specific details she recalled about a drive she said she had taken with Moore.
  • Idea: Ask students to find one recent local news report that interests them. Ask them why they believe it, and what questions it raises for them. Then have them contact the reporter to try to get the story behind the story. For instance: What did the reporter do to verify the details in the report? What was the most challenging aspect of this process? Did anyone try to stop them from getting the full story?
  • Related and relevant: “You’re Fake News!” The 2017 Poynter Media Trust Survey
Can labels build trust?

A media advocacy group and two large news outlets are using labels as a way to boost public trust in quality journalism. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), a media watchdog and advocacy organization in the UK, released a logo that its member publishers can use to signal their high journalistic standards. IPSO chief executive Matt Tee says the mark allows publishers to demonstrate “that they choose to hold themselves … to higher standards.”

The Toronto Star, Canada’s second-largest paper, has begun marking the division between “news” and “opinion” in print, online and in pieces shared on social media. Within those two broad designations, the Star is applying additional sub-labels: “analysis” and “investigation” for news reporting and “editorials,” “reviews” and “readers’ letters,” among others, for opinion.

The Washington Post has added pop-up text captions to its website to help readers distinguish between different types of articles.

New explanatory captions appear when readers hover over
article labels on the Post’s website.

Labels that clarify the purpose of articles are increasingly important in today’s digital information landscape, where pieces are commonly shared and consumed individually.

  • Idea: Review these labeling systems as well as the work of Trusting News, a project of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, which is aiming to develop a standard labeling system across newsrooms. Then assign teams of students to evaluate how (and whether) their local news organizations label their content.
  • Act: Let news organizations hear from your students, either with praise for clear labeling or with suggestions for improving their efforts.
  • Discuss: When you share a piece of information with your social media network, does it automatically carry your own personal “label” or endorsement? Why or why not?

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

Advertising, opinion or propaganda?

The 2018 midterm elections are less than a year away, and our social media feeds, mailboxes and airwaves will soon be flooded with information from and on behalf of candidates for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, governorships and other state and local offices. While some of us may dread the onslaught of materials — whether online, on television and radio or in print — the coming campaign season provides a powerful learning opportunity to explore the differences among political advertising, propaganda and opinion.

"The Living Room Candidate" is an excellent resource from the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Its database of political advertising covers every presidential election from 1952 to 2016. The For Teachers section includes lessons and useful tools, such as:

  • Functionality for saving ads and making playlists.
  • An “admaker” that lets users edit, remix or make new ads.
  • Lists of candidates’ websites, political blogs and news sites that discuss political advertising.
  • Graphic organizers for analysis and evaluation of ads.
Another tool students can use over the next year is ProPublica's effort to collect and monitor political ads on Facebook. Users can send ads they find in their news feeds to ProPublica, which in turn is making them available in an online database. This presents an opportunity to compare current examples of political ads with those from previous campaigns.

When evaluating an ad, consider:

  • Does it have verifiable facts to support its claims?
  • Does it feature manipulated or distorted images?
  • Was it designed to generate strong emotions?
  • What, if anything, is left out?

Ad spending for Senate and House campaigns next year could set records. In some races, sorting through all the ads may be overwhelming. But with the right tools, students can recognize misinformation and distortion.

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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