The Sift: Does tech owe journalism? | Double mask rumor | Marty Baron interview

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Teach news literacy this week
Does tech owe journalism? | Double mask rumor | Marty Baron interview

NOTE: The News Literacy Project staff is off next Monday for Presidents Day. The Sift will return on Monday, Feb. 22.

Local newspapers versus tech giants

A West Virginia-based newspaper publisher, HD Media, has filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against Google and Facebook, contending the tech giants are unfairly dominating the digital advertising market and putting the journalism industry at risk. Editor & Publisher, which first reported on the suit filed on Jan. 29, called the case the “first-of-its-kind.”

Quality journalism depends on funding from newspaper advertising revenue, which has fallen by more than 50% over the last 15 years, according to the suit. Tens of thousands of newspaper jobs also have vanished, representing a 60% decline in the industry since 1990. Google and Facebook, in the meantime, comprised more than half of all digital ad spending in the United States in 2019. The suit said: “The reduction in revenues to newspapers across the country, including [HD Media], were directly caused by Defendants’ conduct … and went directly into Google’s coffers.” While journalists and industry observers have been monitoring such trends for years, this legal action is a notable development in news organizations’ ongoing tensions with Big Tech.

Discuss: How have major tech companies dominated the advertising market? Do you think tech companies like Google and Facebook are responsible for the decline of the news industry? Do these tech companies profit from the work of news organizations? Do they owe anything to the news industry? Why or why not? What are some consequences of a diminished local news industry? What might happen if smaller, local news organizations are forced to close for lack of revenue?
Resource: “Democracy’s Watchdog” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).

Viral rumor rundown

NO: Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene did not say “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us.” YES: This quote has been used to deride various public officials since at least 1976. YES: A version of the quote also appears in this Los Angeles Times report from 1970.


NO: Fox News did not fail to cover Brian Sicknick, the U.S. Capitol Police officer who died following the Jan. 6 insurrection, lying in honor in the Rotunda. NO: The news clips in this TikTok video do not all show coverage from the same date and time. YES: Fox News was criticized for devoting significantly less time than the other networks to President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden paying their respects to Sicknick late in the evening on Feb. 2. YES: Fox News carried a live feed of the memorial ceremony for Sicknick on Feb. 3 for about 24 minutes — from approximately 10:30 a.m. ET until about 10:54 a.m. ET — during America’s Newsroom hosted by Bill Hemmer and Dana Perino.

Note: The links above are from the Internet Archive’s television archive. The Fox News archive reflects the network’s West Coast broadcast and shows times in the Pacific time zone.

Idea: Show students this recording of the TikTok (note that this version has been edited to protect the user's privacy and cut a profanity from the end), then ask for their reactions: How does this make you feel? What would you do if you encountered this online? If no students question the accuracy of the claim, ask: Is this strong evidence that Fox News did not carry any of the ceremonies honoring Sicknick? Is there a way to verify this claim? Then introduce students to the Internet Archive’s television archive, help them confirm the dates Sicknick was lying in honor at the Capitol (Feb. 2 and 3), and locate the actual coverage from Fox News and other networks.

★ Featured rumor resource: These classroom-ready slides guide students through using critical observation, “lateral reading” skills and searching the Internet Archive’s free collection of television news broadcasts to fact-check this viral TikTok video.


NO: Dominion Voting Systems machines were not used in Myanmar’s November 2020 election. YES: Voters in Myanmar vote via paper ballot. YES: The democratically elected government in Myanmar was overthrown in a coup on Feb. 1 after leaders and supporters of the military — which used to rule the country — falsely claimed that the election was fraudulent.

Related: “QAnon Conspiracy Theorists Are Emboldened by the Coup in Myanmar” (EJ Dickson, Rolling Stone).


NO: There is not only one airplane that is called Air Force One. YES: The “Air Force One” call sign is used for any airplane with the president of the United States on board. YES: There are smaller planes — like the C-32 model that President Joe Biden took to Delaware on Feb. 5 — in the fleet that the Air Force uses to transport the president. YES: The two planes most commonly referred to as “Air Force One” are based on the Boeing 747 airframe, like the one pictured at the top of this meme. YES: As Snopes reported, former President Donald Trump also used the C-32 as Air Force One.

Note: This is a narrative fragment of the QAnon conspiratorial belief system that persists in maintaining the delusion that President Biden’s inauguration was fake and that he is not actually president.


NO: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not issue an order “demanding” that people wear two masks. YES: The CDC on Jan. 29 issued an order requiring passengers and operators of public transportation to wear a mask “made with two or more layers of a breathable fabric that is tightly woven” starting on Feb. 2. NO: The recommendation to ensure that cloth masks have multiple layers of fabric is not new and was made earlier in the pandemic.

Note: As (linked above) points out, following the sourcing of this distorted claim about the CDC order is a case study in how false assertions often spread online. The Ron Paul Institute cites ZeroHedge, a far-right libertarian site that began as a financial blog but expanded into conspiracy theories and fringe commentary. ZeroHedge credits a website called Planet Free Will, which attributes the story to the notorious conspiracy and health supplement outlet Infowars, which is owned by conspiracy theorist and provocateur Alex Jones.

Ask a Journalist
Q: “What decisions should journalists think about while deciding what story to cover?” (Ava, 12th grade, New Jersey)

A: The short answer: It can be tough to decide which stories to cover! Sporting events, government meetings, breaking news, story tips from sources — so many developments compete for journalists’ attention. News organizations can’t cover everything, not only because they have limited time, resources and space in publications and broadcasts, but also because, well, most of what happens every day isn’t “newsworthy”! So journalists have to rely on something called “news judgment” to decide how newsworthy something is. Newsworthiness determines what issues and events get covered — and how prominently. It is generally based on how timely, important, interesting and unique a story is.

Sometimes, an editor assigns a story to a reporter. Other times, a reporter pitches an idea to an editor, who approves it. Journalists may also pursue story ideas from news releases or statements from an organization or newsworthy person. Leaked documents or tips can lead to stories if journalists are able to verify the information as credible. Deciding what to cover isn’t easy, but keeping the factors of newsworthiness in mind can help journalists, who often juggle multiple story ideas at once, determine which stories the public most needs to know on a given day.

Thanks, Ava, for your important question! Did we miss anything? Feel free to tweet us at @NewsLitProject or email us at [email protected] so we can continue the conversation.

What should we tackle next? Submit your questions using this link, and you may see them answered in upcoming issues of The Sift!

Idea: Review recent coverage from a local news organization. Then, discuss: What is happening in your city, school, neighborhood or community that you think local journalists should pay more attention to? Are there many stories about people your age? Brainstorm ideas for what you would like to see covered more and explain what makes these topics newsworthy. Consider sharing your recommendations with the newsroom you reviewed.

Related: “Trust Tips 2: Explain how you decide which stories to cover” (Joy Mayer, Trusting News).

Resources: “What is News?” and “Be the Editor” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).


★ Sift Picks


“Marty Baron Considers His Time at the Washington Post” (Isaac Chotiner, The New Yorker).

Marty Baron, a longtime leader of American newsrooms, has announced that he is stepping down as executive editor of The Washington Post and will retire Feb. 28. Prior to joining the Post in 2013, Baron also led The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald, charting a career that spanned more than four decades of enormous change in the journalism industry. This New Yorker interview, in which Baron reflects on his tenure at the Post, highlights several important news literacy takeaways, including the impact of social media on newsrooms, the ethics surrounding Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the news organization and the meaning of journalistic objectivity.

Note: Baron is a longtime supporter of NLP's work and a member of NLP's philanthropic Visionary Circle.

Also note: The Post is one of several major news organizations looking for new leadership.

Related: “Rolling Stone Seeks New Editor Amid Industry-Wide Leadership Shuffle” (Joe Pompeo, Vanity Fair).

Discuss: According to Baron, how have the internet and social media changed journalism? Do news organizations need social media policies, or should journalists be allowed to post whatever they want? If you ran a newsroom, what kind of social media policy would you put in place for employees? Why? Do you agree with Baron that the aspiration to be as objective as possible in journalism is “not neutrality, it’s not both-sides-ism, it’s not so-called balance”? How is trying to be objective different from “neutrality, balance, both-sides-ism”?

Idea: Read this recent Post story on Bezos’ decision to step down as CEO of Amazon. Then, discuss: How did the Post disclose Bezos’ ownership ties in this story? Why is this transparency important? Does the report seem comprehensive and fair in its coverage? How does it compare to coverage by other news organizations? Is it consistent with how Baron said the Post covers Amazon? (Here is another recent Post story on Amazon that students can discuss).

Another idea: In the interview, Baron described his personal media consumption. Ask students to describe or document their own media diets and reflect on why consulting diverse news sources is important. Where do they get their news? How could they diversify their news diets? Consider having students create a list of action steps.

Resource: “Understanding Bias” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).


Quick Picks

“TikTok Is Adding a Potential Misinformation Warning Label to Save Us From Ourselves” (Whitney Kimball, Gizmodo).

  • Note: This Twitter thread from Tommy Shane, of First Draft, explores how the design and functionality of TikTok’s new misinformation labels may impact their effectiveness.
  • Also note: In a Feb. 7 Bloomberg opinion column, Cass R. Sunstein argues that because we are all vulnerable to “truth bias” — the persistent sense that there is at least some truth to everything we hear — labeling misinformation online doesn’t reverse its effects.
  • Discuss: What kinds of misinformation have you seen on TikTok? If you were the CEO, how would you go about addressing misinformation and other harmful content on TikTok? Is labeling misinformation an effective way to limit its effects? Do you think social media platforms should just ban or remove all misinformation? Would this be possible? Why or why not?
  • Related: “TikTok takes on the mess that is misinformation” (Danielle Abril, Fortune).

“Journalist identities hijacked to spread fake news” (Sara Fischer, Axios).

  • Discuss: Why do bad actors target journalists’ identities to spread misinformation? How might these tactics hinder tech companies’ ability to detect such falsehoods? What other types of professionals or experts could bad actors target in their efforts to give hoaxes or misinformation legitimacy?
  • Idea: Examine this example (archived here) included in the Axios piece of a journalist’s identity being hijacked through a “meme that featured an article with his byline.” The story was fake and falsely used his byline. Aside from Facebook’s warning label, are there other signs that this post may be manipulated or false? (Do the comments offer any clues? Can students click on an actual story? Or is it just an image or meme, which can be easily altered with a false headline, byline and story text?)
  • Tip: Screenshots of news reports that are shared without the link to the actual story are a red flag.
  • Related:

“Student journalists at an HBCU campus newspaper took on racist local media—and won” (Alexis Wray, Scalawag).

  • Discuss: According to Wray, how has media coverage of North Carolina A&T State University — and of other historically Black colleges and universities — contributed to “misrepresenting the Black experience”? How can news organizations improve their coverage of these communities?
  • Idea: Have students explore “The Black Narrative” project, including its findings on news coverage linked to the university. Ask students to click through the headlines featured in the project and discuss the problem(s) identified. How would students rewrite these headlines?

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].

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