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Monday, April 9, 2018
Promos or propaganda?

In a memo sent in early March (and almost immediately leaked to CNN), Sinclair Broadcast Group — the country’s largest owner of local television stations — instructed its stations’ local news anchors to record promotional segments saying that “some media outlets” publish “fake stories” and use “their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think.’”
Those “must-run” promotional spots, which the company said should appear frequently “to create maximum reach,” began airing in late March — and led to condemnation and controversy after Deadspin published an edited compilation of the promos on March 31.

A screenshot of Deadspin’s edited compilation of the “must-run” promotional spots featuring local news anchors at Sinclair’s television stations.

While critics called these and other Sinclair “must-run” spots a form of political propaganda, and accused Sinclair of intentionally echoing President Donald Trump’s attacks on the news media, the company’s chairman defended the promos as “standard practice" in the television industry.

  • Note: Indira Lakshmanan, who holds the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute, offers a solid summary of both the criticism of the spots and Sinclair’s response to it.
  • Idea: Have students share what they may already know about Sinclair, then do some quick group research into the promo controversy. Share the Deadspin video and two opposing views about the spots and the compilation (l recommend this column by Jonah Goldberg in USA Today and this column by David Zurawik in The Baltimore Sun) to spark discussion.
  • Discuss: How unusual is it for a media company to run promos on local television stations? What kinds of promotional spots are run by local stations that aren’t owned or operated by Sinclair? What is the difference between the controversial Sinclair promo and others — for example, this one by CNN?

Viral rumor rundown

NO: President Donald Trump did not tweet that community college is actually “13th grade … for dummys.”

  • Note: Fake tweets are easy to create using any number of free online fake tweet generators. Politwoops, which is run by the investigative news outlet ProPublica, archives all of Trump’s tweets (and those of hundreds of other politicians and candidates) as soon as they are posted. The Politwoops Trump archive does not include this tweet, nor are there any manual retweets or cached versions of it.
  • Also note: While it may be tempting to have students create fake tweets as a classroom exercise, I believe that it sends the wrong message and should be avoided. Fake tweets are difficult to control and often “get loose,” causing confusion and misinformation to spread.
NO: Joy Behar, co-host of ABC’s daytime talk show The View, did not tweet that she hoped President Trump died in the April 7 fire at Trump Tower in New York.
  • Note: No actual retweets or cached versions of this tweet can be found anywhere on Twitter, and The View immediately disavowed it as a fake. Fake tweets are often circulated with the claim that they have been deleted (to explain their absence from the alleged tweeter’s feed).
NO: The image below, which circulated in January, does not depict a member of ISIS in New York City. It is a digitally altered version of a selfie taken by an Italian tourist (the ISIS flag insignia was added to the scarf).

A selfie purporting to show a member of ISIS posing outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art was determined by the FBI to have been digitally manipulated.
  • Note: The image received significant news coverage when it was originally posted to a jihadist website on Dec. 30.
  • Idea: Use reverse image searches and text searches to find the original coverage of the image and divide the coverage among groups of students. Then:
  • Discuss: Did any news organizations present this image as if it had been confirmed as authentic? How did the articles you and your students found handle reporting on the image? Have all the news organizations that originally reported the image updated their stories with the FBI’s recent determination that it is a fake? Was the sharing of this image on a jihadist website in December newsworthy? Why or why not?
NO: There is no credible evidence that any Muslims in the U.K. have demanded that other people not walk their dogs in public out of respect for Islamic beliefs. YES: This has been a persistent rumor on social media since flyers — claiming to be from a group called For Public Purity — were distributed in Greater Manchester, England, in July 2016. YES: There is evidence (cited by BuzzFeed News) that the whole scheme was hatched by contributors to the Politically Incorrect message board on 4chan.
  • Discuss: Why might someone circulate such a false rumor? Why might these flyers have emerged in this county? Some news organizations — such as the Manchester Evening News — reported on the flyers when they were first distributed. Was this a good decision? Did the coverage make it clear that the authenticity of the group circulating the flyers couldn’t be verified?
YES: The photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger below is authentic. NO: It was not taken outside a hotel whose opening he attended while serving as governor of California, only to be refused a room years later (as this viral rumor falsely states). The actor posted this photo on Instagram in January 2016 as a joke, according to reports at the time. It was taken outside the convention center in Columbus, Ohio, where he has sponsored an annual bodybuilding and fitness festival for almost three decades. 
  • Note: Viral rumors often recirculate when the subjects of those rumors are back in the news. This rumor began recirculating after Schwarzenegger had heart surgery on March 29.
  • Idea: Use this recirculating rumor to create a digital forensics pathway for your students. Start by sharing an archived version of the rumor (to avoid giving traffic to websites with shoddy editorial standards), then give your students a series of challenges — such as determining whether the image is authentic, when and where it was originally published, and where the statue is currently located. If you want to continue, challenge students to name the building in the background, have them show you that building using Google Street View and tell you when and where the statue was originally erected.
NO: The classmates of a young boy with a rare disease did not decline to wish him a happy birthday because of his illness. YES: The viral image below is authentic and is often accompanied by this false claim, along with an explicit appeal for likes, shares or retweets.
  • Note: This is an example of “engagement bait” or “like-farming” — a tactic that involves creating a piece of content designed to get high levels of engagement on social media and that often include explicit appeals for likes or shares. This engagement can then cause algorithms to boost the content and lend it the appearance of legitimacy, both of which help fuel its virality. Such posts typically use a strong appeal to emotion to get clicks and large followings. At that point, the language in the posts is often edited to say something more controversial or malicious, which the engagement numbers then seem to endorse. These "engagement bait" accounts may offer to post third-party messages for a fee or seek to sell their accounts (and their large following) altogether.
  • Idea: Have students gather examples of this kind of social media post, then create a list of themes and strategies that are commonly used to try to get clicks. As noted in the link above, these can include posts that promise some action if they get a specific number of likes, or a heartbreaking story (like the one above) accompanied by an appeal to show your support with a like, or a contest you enter with a like or share.
NO: Malia Obama did not say that what keeps her going is that white people will be “blended out by the time I am 30.” This is an entirely fabricated claim created as a meme by “fake news” mogul Christopher Blair.
A debilitated newsroom fights back

A photo (top) showing 142 members of The Denver Post’s newsroom staff in 2013 and a photo illustration of that same image (bottom) showing how many of those staffers have been laid off or left in the five years since it was taken. The day after this was published, 25 journalists lost their jobs, with five more positions expected to be eliminated by July. (Top: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post; bottom: Katie Wood, The Denver Post)

On Sunday, The Denver Post’s opinion section was devoted to a singular topic: the paper and its mission. In nine columns and an editorial, the Post’s journalists criticized their parent company — Alden Global Capital — and made a collective case for the value of the paper, urging the New York City-based hedge fund to either focus on quality journalism and stop making cuts to the newsroom staff or sell to someone who would.

Chuck Plunkett, who runs the editorial pages and conceived the special section, didn’t warn Digital First Media (a subsidiary of Alden Global Capital) or the Post’s editor, Lee Ann Colacioppo, of his plans (Colacioppo later defended the section). Plunkett told The New York Times that he “had to do it because it was the right thing to do” and that if he loses his “job trying to stand up for my readers, then that means I’m not working for the right people.”

The very fact that the section was published demonstrates The Post’s editorial independence from its corporate parent. The fact that the Post’s editor knew nothing about it — and was not asked to weigh in on it — shows an intact firewall between the paper’s news and opinion departments.

The special section contains the main editorial and nine columns, including several that reflect key news literacy lessons. Here are a few:

  • “The stories that might not get told — and the importance of telling them” (Jenn Fields)
    • Discuss: Are sharing stories about ordinary citizens of a city an important part of local news coverage? Why or why not? How might shrinking newsrooms affect the sharing of such stories? How might shrinking newsrooms affect the quality of those stories?
    • Idea: Reach out to local journalists on social media and ask them if their newsroom has experienced cuts — and if so, what effect this has had on their reporting and their outlet’s coverage of the area.
    • Act: Assign student teams one local news organization and ask them to do a quick analysis of its coverage for a period of time (for example, over the last month). Students might be also asked to sort the coverage into categories of impact or importance (high impact, medium impact and low impact). The teams can share and compare their results.
  • “Cuts to local newspapers hurt all local news” (Joanne Ostrow)
    • Discuss: Why are newspapers struggling to stay in business? How could losing a local newspaper affect other local news outlets? Can cities be “great” without a “great newspaper”? Why or why not?
    • Idea: Have students investigate layoffs at their local newspaper. Have there been any? How has the size of the newsroom changed over the last 10 years? 20?
    • Another idea: Explore the past work of local reporters who have been recently laid off, then have students pretend that work never existed. How might that absence have affected their communities or families?
  • “Love us or hate us, you’ll miss us when we’re gone” (Diane Carman)
    • Idea: This column argues that readers of The Denver Post would miss the paper if it were gone. Use this as a journal prompt for your students, then have them edit their pieces into a package and send it to one or more journalists at your local newspaper. Follow up by asking local journalists to visit your classroom to discuss the students’ opinions.
  • Related: "Let's stop talking about how we value local journalism and do something" (Kristen Hare, Poynter)
Quick hits
  • Use the controversy over The Atlantic’s hiring — and firing — of Kevin Williamson to explore the Overton Window and the tension between free expression and civil discourse.
    • Discuss: Should some ideas not be allowed in the national conversation? Who decides? What criteria should be used to determine them? Should public opinionators be allowed to push “thought frontiers” that are beyond the bounds of acceptable discussion?
    • Idea: Compare two opposing positions about Williamson’s firing — for example, here and here — and hold a debate.
  • The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is searching for a contractor to help it monitor some 290,000 news sources and create a database of journalists and other influencers from around the world.
    • Discuss: This announcement was controversial and generated a significant amount of discussion online. Why?
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 @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 for the rest of the 2017-18 school year. Yes, it’s free.

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