Teach news literacy this week 2021 press freedoms ranking | Vaccine misinfo | Teen watchdog praised
NOTE: We’re making some big changes to The Sift next year and need your help! Please take a few minutes to complete our annual reader survey and tell us how this newsletter can better meet your needs.
Blocking press freedoms
Journalism — “arguably the best vaccine against the virus of disinformation” — is obstructed in a majority of countries around the world, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and its new press freedom ranking.
The 2021 World Press Freedom Index, an annual ranking of 180 countries and territories, showed that journalism “is totally blocked or seriously impeded in … 73% of the countries evaluated.” The “data reflect a dramatic deterioration in people's access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage,” an overview of the ranking said. COVID-19 is being used to block availability to sources and reporting on the ground, making it hard to cover controversial stories. RSF questioned whether access will improve once the pandemic ends.
In addition, RSF noted a troubling measure of public mistrust of journalists, citing the results of a survey in 28 countries called the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer. It found that nearly 60% of those who responded believe “journalists deliberately try to mislead the public by reporting information they know to be false” when in actuality, journalism combats “infodemics” of misinformation and disinformation, RSF said.
The United States advanced one place (to 44) with its press freedom categorized as “fairly good,” RSF said, despite unprecedented numbers of assaults against and arrests of journalists (about 400 and 130, respectively).
Norway remained at the top of the list for the fifth year, and Finland held on to its second-place spot while Sweden reclaimed its third-place ranking. Totalitarian countries once again claimed the bottom three places — Turkmenistan (178), North Korea (179) and Eritrea (180). Malaysia, which recently enacted a law against what authorities deem false content, dropped the most in the ranking — 18 spots to 119.
Discuss: Are any of the rankings surprising? How does press freedom in the United States compare with other countries? Why are press freedoms important? What role does a free press play in a democracy? How can journalism help stop the spread of false and misleading information?
Idea: Invite a journalist to discuss press freedoms and share experiences related to the issue with students.
NO: There is no evidence that Black Lives Matter activists or anyone identifying as “Antifa” — an unofficial anti-fascism movement — started a fire at a church in Minneapolis on April 19. YES: The church caught fire the night before the verdict in the Derek Chauvin murder trial. YES: A Minneapolis Fire Department official told The Catholic Spirit, a publication of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, “There [are] no indications that the fire is associated with any civil unrest.” NO: The Instagram account that shared this rumor — @republicanparty — is not the official account of the Republican Party.
Note: The Instagram account that shared this false claim also promotes a “patriotic clothing brand.” Promoting disinformation on social media may be a strategy to increase traffic to that brand’s website, which is linked in the account’s bio.
NO: The truck in this Facebook post does not belong to Anheuser-Busch InBev, which owns the Budweiser brand. YES: It is owned by an independent distributor in Florida. NO: The truck is no longer in service, according to the fact-checker Lead Stories.
NO: A “Stanford study” did not find that masks are ineffective at reducing the transmission of COVID-19. NO: Wearing masks also does not cause “health deterioration and premature death.” YES: An article making these claims was written by a self-described “clinical exercise physiologist” (who is not affiliated with Stanford University) and appeared in Medical Hypotheses, a journal that has published fringe science hypotheses in the past. YES: The article contained numerous grammatical and punctuation errors. YES: The article was amplified by The Gateway Pundit, a far-right conspiracy website with a history of spreading COVID-19 misinformation.
Note: Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has criticized YouTube for removing a video of a March 18 discussion DeSantis had with several controversial scientists who made false statements contending children don’t need to wear masks. YouTube told PolitiFact that it removed the video because “it included content that contradicts the consensus of local and global health authorities.”
NO: There is no link between messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines for COVID-19 and autoimmune diseases or lung damage. NO: The mRNA vaccines do not alter your DNA. YES: The underlying science for the vaccines was under development prior to the pandemic. YES: These false claims were pushed last week in a viral video featuring Sherri Tenpenny, an osteopathic physician and major spreader of vaccine misinformation who believes in an array of baseless conspiracy theories. YES: Extensive medical trial data has proven the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 to be both safe and effective, a conclusion supported by global health authorities.
Idea: Have students read this infographic from On the Media highlighting 10 points for people to keep in mind when considering news and other information about the COVID-19 vaccines. Then have them share the infographic as part of an awareness campaign.
NO: These two photos of Palm Beach, a suburban beach town near Sydney, Australia, do not demonstrate that sea levels aren’t rising. YES: According to experts at NASA, sea levels in Sydney rose by nearly five inches during the 20th century. NO: This type of photo comparison is not a reliable way to measure changes in sea level. YES: There is overwhelming scientific evidence that human activity is causing the Earth’s temperature to increase, and sea levels are rising as a result.
When it comes to advertising, not everything online is as it first appears. Some ads, for example, are designed to look like news stories. To make things trickier, this kind of advertising has different names and is marked with different labels, including “sponsored content,” “native advertising,” “advertorial,” “paid post,” or hashtags such as #ad or #sponsored.
This week, let's use our news goggles to tell the difference between ads and news — even when they look alike!
★ Featured News Goggles resource: These classroom-ready slides offer annotations, discussion questions and a teaching idea related to this week’s topic.
Discuss: Have you ever mistaken an ad online or on social media for a news story? What made you think it was a news story? Do you think it is important for people to know the difference between news stories and advertisements? Which of these examples of advertising would you say is most responsibly and clearly labeled? Which is most confusing?
Idea: Ask students to keep a journal for a week on examples of different advertising, including branded content, that they come across as part of their typical news consumption. What labels do they notice? Were some ads hard to identify?
Shortly after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty in the death of George Floyd, attention turned to Darnella Frazier, the teenager whose 10-minute video showing Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck prompted a global outcry over racial injustice. When she saw police restraining Floyd on the ground, she began recording what was happening on her phone. That video, viewed by millions, is credited as “a central piece of evidence in Chauvin’s trial,” and many praised her bravery and called her a hero. Frazier, age 17 when she made the recording, posted on social media after the verdict: “George Floyd we did it!! … justice has been served.”
Discuss: What does it mean to play the role of a “watchdog”? How can ordinary people play this role? How are personal technology, social media and citizen watchdogs connected? What issues or subjects are most in need of citizen watchdogs today?
Idea: Have students research and create a profile — a video, visual artwork or short essay — of Frazier and her role as a citizen watchdog. Ask them to consider these questions: What kind of wrongdoing did Frazier document? What role did social media play? How did her video factor into news coverage about Floyd’s death? What was the outcome of Frazier’s actions?
Discuss: How can a lack of credible news sources in a specific language make particular groups of people more vulnerable to misinformation? Should YouTube be held responsible for harmful misinformation on its platform? How do spreaders of misinformation in the Vietnamese community use the country’s history with communism to target Vietnamese people with false information? Should social media platforms have teams of people dedicated to monitoring misinformation in every language? What can young people teach relatives about misinformation on the internet?
Discuss: How can disinformation “distort reality”? What kinds of mis- and disinformation do you worry most about? How can belief in one conspiracy theory lead people to embrace others? Do you know anyone who has fallen down conspiracy theory rabbit holes, whether through YouTube videos or other sites? Do you know anyone who once believed in conspiracy theories but no longer does? What changed their mind?
Discuss: In what ways are the student journalists working on The Westham Project acting as watchdogs? How does this investigative project exemplify the ideals and purpose of quality journalism?
Idea: Have students explore The Westham Project website and reflect on it. What is the potential impact of this work? Are there similar topics in your own community that could benefit from news coverage?