The Sift: Fake VP book scandal | Snapchat and free speech | Debunking Joe Rogan

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Teach news literacy this week
Fake VP book scandal | Snapchat and free speech | Debunking Joe Rogan


Viral rumor rundown

★ Viral rumor review: You can find the classroom-ready slides for this week's rundown here.

NO: Officials at a facility for migrant children brought from the U.S.-Mexico border were not handing out a children’s book written by Vice President Kamala Harris. YES: A copy of Harris’ 2019 book Superheroes Are Everywhere was donated during a book and toy drive to an “emergency intake site” for unaccompanied migrant children at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center. YES: The baseless claim that copies of the book were included in welcome kits at taxpayers’ expense and distributed to each child at the site originated with an erroneous report published by the New York Post on April 23. YES: Fox News — which, like the Post, is owned by the Murdoch family — also published the report. YES: The Post eventually added an editor’s note at the end of the story to update it with a correction after it had spread widely on social media. YES: Fox News also made updates and corrections to its report.

Note: The false assertion that the book was being given to each child at the facility appears to have been based on a photo of a single donated copy left on a cot.

Also note: Laura Italiano, the Post reporter who wrote the original report, announced her resignation from the paper on Twitter on April 27 and claimed she was “ordered to write” the false report. The Post issued a statement denying Italiano’s claim.


Idea: Have students evaluate the steps the New York Post and Fox News took to correct the false report. Were the corrections sufficiently clear? Did the organizations hold themselves accountable for the error? Did they explain how it occurred?


NO: 85% of Americans did not approve of President Joe Biden’s April 28 speech to a joint session of Congress — the first of his presidency. YES: According to a CBS News / YouGov poll, 85% of American speech-watchers — only 18% of whom identified themselves as Republicans — approved of it.

Note: As CNN’s chief media correspondent Brian Stelter noted, the television ratings for Biden’s speech were significantly lower than similar speeches by past presidents. But such ratings do not necessarily reflect the total reach of the speech because they can't take internet and other viewers into account.


NO: The two violent phrases in this tweet were not “typed into Google” 163 million and 178 million times, respectively, over several months in 2020. YES: These figures that claimed a big increase in such searches from the prior year were based on a flawed study. YES: Searching these phrases returns several billion search results (the number of webpages a given search returns) but these should not be mistaken for search trends (the frequency of specific searches over time). YES: An analysis by the fact-checking website Snopes (linked above) using the Google Trends search tool determined that almost “no one used the website to look for information on ‘how to hit a woman so no one knows,’ including during the time window referenced in the study (March to August 2020).”

Note: Violence against women is alarmingly common. According to the World Health Organization, about 30% “of women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.”


NO: These are not rigged COVID-19 tests. YES: They are control swabs included with some test kits that ensure they are working properly.

Note: The claim that this photo was “taken secretly by a nurse” is an example of an appeal to authority, a logical fallacy in which the opinion or endorsement of an authority is used as evidence to support an assertion. Because the nurse isn’t named, this example could also be classified as an appeal to anonymous authority (also known as an appeal to rumor).


NO: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) did not remove the Church of the Nativity, officially recognized as the birthplace of Jesus, from its World Heritage List. YES: The screenshot in this Facebook post has been doctored to conceal the last two words in the actual headline: “in danger.” YES: UNESCO in 2012 added the site to its List of World Heritage in Danger because it had been damaged by water leaks. YES: The church was removed from the “in danger” list in 2019.

A screenshot of the 2019 report published by UN News showing the actual headline, which includes the words “in danger” at the end. A doctored version that recently went viral obscured these two words and generated outrage.

Ask a Journalist
Q: How is the posting process different for online publications as opposed to paper publications? (Jocelyn, college undergraduate, Illinois)

A: In the digital age, news organizations — whether online or print — are 24/7 operations. Even print publications often have a digital- or mobile-first mentality. But all standards-based newsrooms work to ensure each news report is as fair and accurate as possible prior to posting it. A journalist typically has at least one editor who reviews their work before it is published. That editor is not only checking for accuracy, grammar and style, but also looking for any “holes,” or missing relevant information. Also before posting, a headline is written for the story. A reporter may suggest a headline, but oftentimes, it is finalized by an editor.

The timing of publication depends on the story. For example, if the story is breaking or quickly developing, a news organization seeks to publish new credible information ASAP. This could mean publishing a news alert followed by a paragraph or two that turn into a short story, which is then updated as new details emerge. But on a longer-form story or investigative piece, the reporting, writing and editing process could take months before being published. Usually, stories are posted online first. In addition to sharing stories on their own websites or print publications, newsrooms post articles in other ways, including on social media, to reach wider audiences.

Thank you, Jocelyn, for your interesting 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: Contact a local online and/or print journalist for their thoughts on working in a 24/7 news operation and how the publication process works in their newsroom.

Resources: “Be the Editor” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom) and Newsroom to Classroom (Checkology directory of journalist volunteers).

★ Sift Picks


“Can schools discipline for off-campus student speech? Court to take up First Amendment case.” (John Fritze, USA Today).

The legal dispute over a former Pennsylvania high school cheerleader’s profanity-filled post on Snapchat in 2017 may soon lead to one of the Supreme Court’s “most important decisions on student speech in a generation.” The case could help determine whether schools can discipline students for what they say off campus — an issue of growing importance in today’s information environment. Brandi Levy, then age 14, was kicked off the junior varsity cheerleading squad after venting her frustrations on Snapchat when she did not make varsity. (Snapchat posts are temporary, but a screenshot of Levy’s message circulated.) Some worry the court’s decision could curb First Amendment rights and “turn schools into speech police,” while others argue that schools should have authority to discipline off-campus speech, including bullying. The court’s decision in the case is expected in June.

Note: Some questions raised by this case aren’t new. Students’ free speech was at the center of Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court’s historic 1969 decision that ruled teachers and students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The court also ruled that school officials could not prohibit speech “only on the suspicion” that it could disrupt learning.

Discuss: Do you think Levy’s Snapchat post is protected under the First Amendment? Should school leaders be able to discipline students for things they say off campus? If yes, should this always be the case, or only under certain circumstances? How have remote learning and social media blurred the divide between on- and off-campus speech?

Idea: After reading the USA Today piece, divide students into two groups and hold a class debate on whether or not schools should be able to discipline students for off-campus speech.

Resources: “The First Amendment” (NLP’s Checkology virtual classroom) and "News Lit Quiz: So, what’s the First Amendment?".


Quick Picks

Analysis: “Joe Rogan told his millions of listeners not to take his anti-vaccine advice seriously. Is it too late?” (Dominik Stecula and Matt Motta, The Washington Post).

  • Note: The Joe Rogan Experience was the most listened to podcast in the United States in 2020.
  • Also note: After he was criticized for recent comments dismissing the need for young people to get COVID-19 vaccinations, the popular podcast host reminded his listeners that his show is created as entertainment. A study by Stecula and Motta, the authors of this piece, found evidence that Rogan’s audience is more vaccine-hesitant than non-listeners. While they note their data is correlational, they said their findings came after Rogan repeatedly spread misleading COVID-19 information, including questioning the efficacy of masks and vaccines.
  • Discuss: Do shows created for entertainment have standards to ensure accuracy and fairness? Do Rogan’s listeners know that his podcast is entertainment rather than news or authoritative medical advice? Do you think his comments discouraged some people from getting vaccinated? Do you think the opinions of popular entertainers influence people’s views, even when those people realize that the opinions are not verified information?
  • Resource: “InfoZones” (NLP’s Checkology virtual classroom).

“Washington Post, New York Times, and NBC News retract reports on Giuliani” (Oliver Darcy, CNN Business).


“Deepfake satellite imagery poses a not-so-distant threat, warn geographers” (James Vincent, The Verge).

  • Discuss: What are some of the possible malicious uses for deepfake satellite imagery? What is the history of fake and doctored maps as a form of misinformation? What challenges exist for those working to detect artificial or algorithmically-generated images? Why might people be inclined to trust the authenticity of satellite images more than they do other kinds of photos?

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), and edited by 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.