The Sift: Artistic license or smear? | Sockpuppets with fake faces | Global ‘jailed journalists’ census

  News Literacy Project

Clint Eastwood’s new movie Richard Jewell has come under fire for its portrayal of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs, igniting a debate about Hollywood’s depictions of female journalists.

The film, which opened nationwide on Dec. 13, tells the story of Jewell, the security guard hero-turned-suspect in the July 27, 1996, bombing at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park that resulted in two deaths and injuries to more than 100 people. It shows Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) flirting with an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) who was one of her sources and insinuates that she traded sex with him for the information that Jewell was being investigated as a suspect. (The paper was the first to report that Jewell — who discovered a backpack with three pipe bombs, alerted police and helped to evacuate the area — was the focus of the federal investigation.) In another scene, Jewell’s mother (Kathy Bates) tells a room full of reporters that “the media has portrayed my son as the person who has committed this crime. They have taken all privacy from us; they have taken all peace.”

In a letter sent Dec. 9 to Eastwood, screenwriter Billy Ray, Warner Bros. and others, lawyers for the Journal-Constitution and its parent company, Cox Enterprises, described the movie’s treatment of Scruggs, who died in 2001, as “false and malicious” and “extremely defamatory and damaging.” They demanded that the studio and the filmmakers issue a statement “publicly acknowledging that some events were imagined for dramatic purposes and [that] artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters” and that “a prominent disclaimer” to that effect be added to the film.

Warner Bros. called the Journal-Constitution’s claims “baseless” and defended the movie, stating: “The film is based on a wide range of highly credible source material.”

“It is unfortunate and the ultimate irony that the Atlanta Journal Constitution, having been a part of the rush to judgment of Richard Jewell, is now trying to malign our filmmakers and cast,” the studio continued.

Jewell, who was officially cleared as a suspect three months after the bombing, sued the Journal-Constitution for libel in 1997, contending that its reporting had damaged his reputation; two years later, a trial court judge ruled that because Jewell had made himself available for a number of interviews following the bombing, he was to be considered a “limited purpose public figure” for the purposes of the suit — meaning that to win his case, he would have to prove that the paper knowingly published false information about him.

In 2011, the Georgia Court of Appeals found that the Journal-Constitution’s articles about Jewell “were substantially true at the time they were published” and upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the case. The following year, the state Supreme Court declined to review the appeals court's decision, ending a 15-year legal fight. Media coverage of Jewell, who died in 2007, even became a case study in university journalism programs.

Dozens of journalists have criticized the film’s depiction of Scruggs, calling the intimation that she traded sex for information an offensive, sexist trope and noting that in reality, female journalists are often “propositioned, pawed and threatened” by sources. Scruggs’ brother, her former colleagues and her friends have also come to her defense.

Discuss: In your experience, how are journalists portrayed in movies and television programs? Are the depictions fair? Are they accurate? Do you think the depictions of female and male journalists differ in any way? Do you think that Richard Jewell should include a disclaimer, as the Journal-Constitution has demanded?
Idea: Have students research Scruggs and the Journal-Constitution’s coverage of Jewell. Based on students’ research, what did the movie get right about Scruggs, and what did it get wrong?
Another idea: Divide students in small groups to discuss how journalists are depicted in films and television programs. Have each group compile a list of five movies and/or shows in which journalists play a significant role and analyze how journalists were portrayed in them.
FALSE Ilhan Omar fire facebook post

NO: Mary Anne Trump did not say that her son Donald is “an idiot with zero common sense” and that “he’d be a disaster” if he went into politics. This quote is fabricated.

Note: Text published alongside a photo and attributed to a person may seem like evidence that a quote is authentic. It isn’t.
false pelosi facebook post

NO: The person shooting a rifle in this video is not 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg. YES: She is Emmy Slinge, a 31-year-old engineer in Sweden (the page is in Swedish).

Note: If you use Google’s Chrome browser, Google will offer to translate pages written in languages other than English. You can also use
Also note: The claim that the video showed Thunberg shooting the rifle was an especially popular meme in Brazil, and Comprova, a fact-checking initiative supported by four news organizations there, was the first to debunk it (the page is in Portuguese). A reporter from Estadão, one of the news outlets involved with Comprova, contacted Slinge to confirm that she was the person in the video.
Resource: Comprova used the InVid fake news debunker browser extension to find the source video.
FAKE Chris Wallace tweet

NO: Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg did not create a “Moves Like Bloomberg” dance to counter a “High Hopes” dance performed in September by supporters of Pete Buttigieg, another Democratic candidate. YES: Comedian Nick Ciarelli and the improv group Upright Citizens Brigade choreographed the satirical dance as part of a Dec. 12 sketch comedy show. YES: The far-right website Breitbart and a number of influential people on Twitter mistook the bit as a real dance by actual Bloomberg supporters. YES: Within hours, the Bloomberg campaign used its Twitter account “to clarify” that Ciarelli was not a campaign intern. YES: As part of the hoax, Ciarelli updated his Twitter profile to read “Former communications intern @Mike2020.”

fake hedgehog doll

NO: The daughter of Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is not dating the whistleblower whose complaint about President Donald Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president led to the impeachment inquiry. YES: This rumor emerged after Schiff tweeted a family photo on Thanksgiving. YES: It continues to circulate. YES: The satirical “news” website Genesius Times published a fictional piece making this claim, accompanied by a doctored version of Schiff’s Thanksgiving tweet as the lead image. YES: This doctored tweet is included in the preview when the Genesius Times piece is shared on social media.

fake hedgehog doll

NO: Muslim migrants did not try to disrupt a St. Nicholas parade in Austria. NO: People dressed as Krampus — a mythical “anti-St. Nicholas” figure in Central European folklore who is part goat/part demon and punishes children who have misbehaved — did not “defend” the parade by beating Muslim migrants along its route. YES: The link in this tweet goes to a video (a copy of which is here) of a Dec. 5 parade in a town in northern Italy (not Austria) in which people dressed as Krampus “beat” residents in padded clothing who volunteer to provoke the Krampus characters. YES: The organizers of the event released a statement explaining that the people beaten in the video were locals who were part of the event.

Note: This rumor got a boost (archived here) from the far-right British political commentator Katie Hopkins, who has 1.1 million followers on Twitter.
A website associated with the Chinese spiritual group Falun GongThe BL (The Beauty of Life) — is using algorithmically generated fake faces as profile photos for a network of hundreds of Facebook accounts that promote its stories, according to an investigation published by the fact-checking website Lead Stories. The BL is an anti-Communist “news” operation that is largely run by former staffers of The Epoch Times, a nonprofit outlet that is closely tied to Falun Gong and promotes its interests (including support for President Donald Trump, who they believe was sent by God to bring about the end of the Chinese Communist state).

Two earlier investigations (see links below) by Sarah Thompson, Lead Stories’ social media authenticity analyst, explain how The BL created a network of fake Facebook profiles using repurposed photos. These profiles share links to stories from The BL’s pro-Trump groups and pages, some of which are run by other BL-affiliated accounts. In November, Thompson noticed that those sites began using fake faces like those generated by the website
Discuss: What are “sockpuppet” accounts on social media? How common are they? How do people and organizations use sockpuppet accounts? Are the engagement metrics (the number of “likes” and shares) on a social media post a reliable indicator of its popularity? Why or why not? What is the connection between sockpuppet accounts and astroturfing?
Idea: Use the website to introduce students to faces that were generated by artificial intelligence. Then ask them to work in groups to come up with strategies for recognizing algorithmically fabricated faces. Have the groups share and compile their findings and compare them with the fake faces identified by Kyle McDonald in his Medium piece (linked above). Students could then work together to create an infographic teaching others how to detect fake faces.

At least 250 journalists are currently imprisoned worldwide, according to the annual census by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), released on Dec. 11. China was the world’s worst jailer of journalists (at least 48, one more than last year); the number has increased as President Xi Jinping consolidates political control and establishes tighter restrictions on journalists, CPJ said. This year’s survey marked the first time in four years that Turkey did not have the largest number of journalists behind bars (47, compared with 68 last year). That decrease was a result of the Turkish government’s efforts to squash independent journalism by closing more than 100 news outlets and hitting journalists with terrorism-related charges, CPJ said.

Discuss: Why might some governments want to jail journalists? What are some of the charges faced by journalists who were imprisoned in 2019? Do the countries with the worst records of imprisoning journalists have anything in common? Have journalists been jailed in the United States? How many journalists have been arrested in the United States in recent years? If you or members of your family live outside the United States or came to the U.S. from another country, how many journalists are currently jailed in your or your family’s home country?
Idea: Have students explore CPJ’s database of imprisoned journalists. How many journalists face the various charges listed in the drop-down menu?
Another idea: Have students research China and Turkey on the Reporters Without Borders website. Where does each stand in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index? How do their rankings compare with that of the United States? How do the Reporters Without Borders rankings compare with CPJ’s data on the number of journalists who have been attacked, arrested, imprisoned and killed in each country?
Amid an information landscape marked by conflict between President Donald Trump and the news media, Republicans consistently express greater skepticism about journalists and journalism than Democrats, according to a Dec. 12 report by the Pew Research Center (PDF). The study, which focused on trust in the news media in 2018 and 2019, examined more than 50 surveys Pew has conducted and analyzed participants’ answers to more than 100 questions. Trump’s repeated public criticism of news organizations and journalists connect with his strongest supporters, the study said, with nearly a third (31%) of Republican or Republican-leaning adults saying that journalists have very low ethical standards. By contrast, the study found, only 5% of the Democratic or Democratic-leaning respondents felt that way.
Discuss: Are Pew’s findings surprising? Why or why not? Why might Republicans and Democrats have such disparate opinions? What are some consequences of the erosion of public trust in the news media?
Idea: Ask students to conduct their own version of the study by interviewing both Republican/Republican-leaning and Democratic/Democratic-leaning adults about their attitudes toward the news media and journalism ethics. (They might also go deeper, asking the adults about the reasons for their attitudes toward the news media.) Then have them report their findings to the class.    

Two falsehoods went viral in the days leading up to the Dec. 12 general election in the United Kingdom, disrupting the national conversation and spreading confusion online — and there is strong evidence that one of them was part of a coordinated disinformation campaign.

On Dec. 8, The Yorkshire Post published an editorial about a 4-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia who was forced to lie on the floor for hours while awaiting treatment at Leeds General Infirmary, which is operated by the National Health Service. A photo of the boy lying on the floor rapidly spread rapidly online. When a reporter for the television network ITV took out his phone to show Prime Minister Boris Johnson the photo while asking about the state of the National Health Service under Conservative leadership, Johnson at first refused to look; he then grabbed the reporter’s phone and placed it in his pocket.

Just as footage of this incident was starting to spread online, another viral story swept to the fore: allegations that an activist in the opposition Labour Party had punched an advisor to the country’s health secretary in the face. The highly exaggerated claim (the activist’s outstretched arm accidentally hit the advisor in the face as he walked past) went viral among right-wing media figures and was amplified by at least two prominent mainstream journalists — Robert Peston of ITV News and Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC — before being debunked. Both Peston and Kuenssberg issued correcting tweets and apologized.

While the truth about “the punch” was still emerging, yet another viral claim began spreading, often via obscure accounts using identical text that had been copied and shared: that the photo of the 4-year-old boy lying on the hospital floor had been staged. Again, some influential figures online — including a columnist for The Telegraph and a former captain of England’s cricket team — shared this false conspiracy claim with millions of others.

Discuss: How can voters protect themselves from being targeted by disinformation in the days leading up to an election? Should social media companies do anything to combat incidents such as these? What lessons should voters in other countries take away from these incidents in the United Kingdom?

Related: "2020 Campaigns Throw Their Hands Up on Disinformation” (Davey Alba, The New York Times)


Three media organizations were notified in early December that they were denied credentials to cover the Miss America 2020 competition on Dec. 19 — The Press of Atlantic City, The Washington Post and Bravura Magazine, a fashion and lifestyle publication that has covered Miss America and its preliminary pageants. The Miss America Organization defended its credentialing decisions, saying that it reserves the right to not issue or to revoke credentials “at its sole discretion” and that any outlet without credentials can attend public events and buy tickets for ticketed events. The Press — which was involved in the creation of the pageant in 1921 — reported on Dec. 9 that it had resubmitted its application for a credential. Both the Press and the Post have reported on criticism, from state groups and others, of how the pageant has been run in recent years. The Miss America Organization moved the competition this year from Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to the Mohegan Sun resort in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Discuss: Do you think the Miss America Organization has the right to deny press credentials to cover its competition? Does the First Amendment protect news outlets from being excluded from a private event? Why or why not?
Your weekly issue of The Sift is put together by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams) and Suzannah Gonzales of the News Literacy Project.
You’ll find teachable moments from our previous issues in the archives. Send your suggestions and success stories to [email protected].
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