The Sift: Atlanta coverage fallout | Biden press illusion | Russia’s 2020 strategy

Subscribe to the free weekly educator newsletter The Sift.


Teach news literacy this week
Atlanta coverage fallout | Biden press illusion | Russia's 2020 strategy

NOTE: The Sift is going on spring break next week. We’ll be back in your inbox on Monday, April 5.

Shooting coverage debates

News coverage of the March 16 fatal shootings at Atlanta-area spas that occurred amid a recent spate of anti-Asian violence across the country spurred important debates over journalism ethics and news decisions — especially as the story first unfolded. Questions and criticisms of coverage highlighted several notable issues, including the bias and credibility of law enforcement sources; the need for more diverse news organizations, journalists and sources; and hesitation by newsrooms to call the shootings a “hate crime.”

As the story developed, the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) published guidance for newsrooms covering the shootings. Its recommendations include providing context on the recent increasing violence, and understanding the history of anti-Asian racism. It also underscored the need to consult Asian American and Pacific Islander expert sources and to be careful with language that could contribute to “the hypersexualization of Asian women.”

AAJA reported that some newsrooms have questioned whether Asian American and Pacific Islander journalists will show bias or are “too emotionally invested” to cover the shootings. Calling such reports “deeply concerning,” it urged news organizations to empower these journalists “by recognizing both the unique value they bring to the coverage of the Atlanta shootings and the invisible labor they regularly take on, especially in newsrooms where they are severely underrepresented.”

Note: AAJA also released a pronunciation guide for Asian victims of the shootings.
Discuss: How could having more Asian American and Pacific Islander journalists — and others from diverse backgrounds — in newsrooms improve coverage of this story? Why is it important for newsrooms to reflect the diversity of communities they cover?
Idea: Ask students to read AAJA’s guidance for covering the shootings. Then, select a news source on the shootings and see how its coverage compares to AAJA’s recommendations. Have students take notes on language choices, context and sources. Discuss their findings and consider contacting the newsroom to share any feedback.
Resources: “Understanding Bias” and “Practicing Quality Journalism” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).

Viral rumor rundown

NO: Video of President Joe Biden speaking to reporters at the White House on March 16 was not staged or manipulated using a green screen or computer-generated imagery. YES: Biden had an actual exchange with reporters, and the video of him with microphones in the foreground is authentic. YES: An illusion of depth caused Biden’s hands to appear to move through the microphones when they actually were moving over and in front of mics extended on boom poles to maintain social distancing.

Note: This is a fragment of the QAnon conspiracy belief system in which followers believe that Biden — or an actor, hologram or other illusory device — is only pretending to be president until former President Donald Trump returns to power to reveal a vast satanic cabal of child traffickers. This claim circulated beyond QAnon communities online.

Idea: Show students an example of this rumor (for example here or here) and get their initial reaction. What is going on in this video? Why would people claim it was staged? Then show this video debunking the rumor from conspiracy theory investigator Mick West. Conclude by discussing why so many people saw this video as strong evidence that the clip was manipulated and, if appropriate, remind students that false claims about staged political events are often connected to dangerous and baseless QAnon beliefs.

Screenshots from a YouTube video created by conspiracy theory researcher and debunker Mick West that dissects the visual illusion created by the boom mics in the viral clip of Biden’s exchange with reporters outside the White House.


NO: The alleged shooter in the deadly Atlanta-area spa shootings on March 16 did not claim that COVID-19 is part of China's "plan to secure global domination" and did not call for Americans to “fight back.” NO: The Facebook post shared as an image at the bottom of this tweet is not authentic. YES: Fact-checkers at Lead Stories noted irregularities in the image, including outdated blue lettering no longer in use on the platform, that prove it is a manufactured hoax. NO: The suspect in the killings did not live in Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district.


NO: The gas prices in this photo are not representative of the current gas prices across the United States. YES: These are recent prices at just one gas station in downtown Los Angeles that is notorious for prices that are substantially higher than other stations nearby and around the country. YES: The average price of gas nationwide — $2.86 per gallon as of March 15 — has increased significantly in recent weeks due to increased demand, rising crude prices and limited supply due to the February power outages in Texas. YES: Gas prices collapsed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and have recently returned to pre-pandemic levels.

This chart showing average gasoline prices since January 2018 helps put current gas prices into context. Source: The American Automobile Association (AAA)


NO: Professional boxer Marvelous Marvin Hagler did not die as a result of a COVID-19 vaccine. YES: Hagler’s official website states he died of natural causes and and his widow in a Facebook post refuted the rumors that he died as a result of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Note: This false claim stemmed from an Instagram post by the boxer Tommy Hearns, whose fight against Hagler in 1985 is considered one of the greatest in boxing history. It was also repeated by the far-right conspiracy website The Gateway Pundit.

Also note: Some of the misleading posts about Hagler’s death repeated false vaccine claims about baseball great Hank Aaron, who in January died of natural causes 17 days after receiving his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Related: “Headlines lacking context exploited by anti-vaccine activists to wrongly suggest danger, study finds” (Oliver Darcy, CNN Business).

Discuss: Can repeating or re-sharing these kinds of rumors cause harm? Can we ever know the effects of the information we choose to amplify online?

Idea: Use rumors connecting unrelated deaths to COVID-19 vaccines as an opportunity to teach students to recognize the “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” (“after this, therefore, because of this”) logical fallacy.

You can find a copy of this week’s examples here.

As the Atlanta-area deadly spa shootings showed, reliable information can be scarce and change rapidly when major stories first break. How do journalists handle newsgathering when stories are still developing? How is this fluid situation reflected in news reports?

News organizations have to weigh which sources are credible and work to verify information as it evolves — all under immediate deadline pressure. Sometimes, details may turn out to be incorrect, or new information emerges that makes the story more accurate and provides important additional context. (See “Shooting coverage debates” above for more details on how this particular story was covered.)

This week, let’s examine how some news organizations label updates and show transparency in their newsgathering on developing stories. Grab your news goggles. Let’s go!

★ Featured News Goggles resource: These classroom-ready slides offer annotations, discussion questions and a teaching idea related to this week’s topic.

Discuss: If news organizations report information from an official source that later turns out to be incorrect, how should they handle this? Why does misinformation often flourish during breaking news events? How did you learn about the shootings and follow news updates? How did you know whether the information was credible? Did you see any rumors or false information about the shootings?

Idea: Have students review coverage of these shootings. Are there labels for updates? Are there links to previous or related news reports? Is there a dateline (the name of a city in all capital letters, indicating an on-the-ground reporting presence)? Are there any signs that this story is developing and will be updated?



★ Sift Picks


“Foreign Threats to the 2020 U.S. Federal Elections” (National Intelligence Council).

The National Intelligence Council on March 16 released a report outlining actions taken by foreign actors to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election. It concluded that while no foreign actors “attempted to alter any technical aspect of the voting process” in 2020, Russia and Iran did engage in significant information influence operations to manipulate the outcome of the election. Those operations aimed to erode Americans’ confidence in U.S. institutions and the integrity of the electoral process and to intensify social divisions. Both countries worked to push false narratives and misleading “evidence” of alleged voting irregularities and voting fraud.

While Iran worked to undercut former President Donald Trump, Russia used U.S. media outlets, public officials, influential figures close to Trump along with its own state-run media to “launder” and legitimize false and misleading narratives to try to damage then-Democratic nominee Joe Biden.


Discuss: Why would some foreign countries seek to damage Americans’ trust in U.S. institutions, including its election systems? Do you think these kinds of information influence operations — which often use information shared and amplified anonymously online — can be stopped from spreading on social media?


Quick Picks

“Amazon Is Pushing Readers Down A ‘Rabbit Hole’ Of Conspiracy Theories About The Coronavirus” (Craig Silverman and Jane Lytvynenko, BuzzFeed News).

  • Discuss: Does Amazon have as much responsibility to moderate the products and recommendations on its website as social media companies do for the posts on their sites? What kinds of products should Amazon be unwilling to sell? Should it sell books promoting conspiracy theories? What about books that push medical misinformation, or promote racism and extremism? Should its recommendation algorithm promote these kinds of materials to some users?
  • Idea: Remind students that Amazon profits from all the products it sells on its site. Then have them search Amazon for problematic products and make notes about any that they would argue are unethical to sell. Also have students distinguish between products they find through a search and those that Amazon’s suggestion algorithm recommends to them. Then consider what additional steps students could take with their findings.

“That’s not real!: Six tips to help you detect fake science news” (Marc Zimmer, Local News Matters, Bay City News Foundation).

  • Discuss: What are “peer-reviewed journals” and why are the academic papers they publish more credible than publications that are not peer-reviewed? What is “availability bias” and how can it affect our judgment about what science-based claims to believe? What does the phrase “correlation is not causation” mean?
  • Idea: Individually or in groups, challenge students to create an engaging infographic based on Zimmer’s six tips, then share it on social media with a link to this story.

Analysis: “What Conspiracy Theorists Don’t Believe” (Tim Harford, The Atlantic).

  • Discuss: To what extent do you think the problem of misinformation is a product of “excessive belief” (believing too readily) and to what extent is it a product of “excessive doubt” (dismissing credible sources of information)? How do our preexisting beliefs and biases influence the information we accept and dismiss? How can doubt be used as a weapon to misinform people? What is the difference between being skeptical and being cynical about news and information?
  • Related: “The danger of the new skepticism” (Eleanor Cummins, Vox).

What else did we find this week? Here's our list.


Thanks for reading!

Your weekly issue of The Sift is created by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams), Suzannah Gonzales and Hannah Covington (@HannahCov) of the News Literacy Project. It is edited by NLP’s Mary Kane (@marykkane).

You’ll find teachable moments from our previous issues in the archives. Send your suggestions and success stories to [email protected].

Sign up to receive NLP Connections (news about our work) or switch your subscription to the non-educator version of The Sift called Get Smart About News here.


Check out NLP's Checkology virtual classroom, where students learn how to navigate today’s information landscape by developing news literacy skills.