The Sift: Missing people and media bias | George Clooney fake t-shirt | Political cartoons ending?


Teach news literacy this week
Missing people and media bias | George Clooney fake t-shirt | Political cartoons ending?

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Top picks

The disappearance and death of Gabrielle Petito has dominated headlines and stoked intense public interest, particularly on social media, where online sleuths swap case theories and hunt for clues. But relentless coverage of Petito’s case also raises important questions about news decisions and media bias, with some pointing to racial disparities in news coverage of missing person cases. Critics note that cases involving white women often attract more attention than those involving missing people of color. (The late journalist Gwen Ifill called this “missing white woman syndrome.”)
  • Note: Ifill was a longtime supporter of NLP’s work and served on its board.
  • Discuss: Several of the pieces linked above highlight the importance of having diverse perspectives and backgrounds represented in newsrooms — including in leadership roles. How does the demographic makeup of newsrooms affect news coverage? In what ways do newsrooms that are diverse at all levels improve news coverage? How should news organizations decide how much coverage to devote to a given news story? How much should factors like public interest influence news decisions? Can stories be important or newsworthy apart from public interest? Explain your thoughts.
  • Idea: As a class, contact one or more local news organizations to see if they gather information about the demographics of their newsroom, including in leadership roles. Consider having students interview someone in the newsroom about their diversity, equity and inclusion policies.
  • Resources: “Understanding Bias” and “What Is News?” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).
Two new studies offer fresh insights on how people consume and perceive news. First, a Pew Research Center report finds that nearly half (48%) of U.S. adults say they “often” or “sometimes” get news on social media — a small drop from 2020. Facebook tops the list of platforms, with about a third (31%) of Americans reporting they regularly get news there. Second, an analysis of survey data from Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation shows that when it comes to Americans’ views of news, age matters. One big takeaway: Young adults — ages 18 to 34 — are less trusting of the media than those 55 and older, but this younger cohort is also more likely to say “the news media is ‘critical’ to democracy.”
classroom-ready icon Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to guide students through Pew’s report on news consumption and social media. (Note: Make a copy of the Google Forms survey linked in the think sheet to help your class replicate Pew's research and examine students’ social media habits.)
TikTok reaps the benefits of unpaid fact-checkers and extremist watchdogs on its platform, but doesn’t support them in ways that would help them discredit harmful content before it goes viral. Abbie Richards and Leonie Plaar — two social media personalities who focus on debunking disinformation and exposing extremism — are trying to quash conspiracy theories and white nationalist tropes on the platform, but some TikTok critics feel the company should do more to combat misinformation and support users who are currently doing such work for free.

Viral rumor rundown

Video of protest in Romania is from 2017, unrelated to vaccines

A Twitter post that includes a video showing television footage of a large crowd protesting at night. The text in the tweet says, “This is absolutely EPIC.. Romanian government has closed all vaccine centres because 70% of the citizens won’t get the jab. Coercion did not work. RESISTANCE.” The video has almost 900,000 views, and the tweet has been liked and retweeted thousands of times. The News Literacy Project has added a red X and caption that said “FOOTAGE OF 2017 PROTEST.”

NO: The video in this tweet does not show an anti-vaccine protest in Romania. YES: It shows footage from Televiziunea Română, a Romanian public television network, of anti-corruption protests in Bucharest, Romania, in February 2017.

NewsLit takeaway: Using aerial photos and videos of crowds out of context is a common tactic that trolls and other purveyors of disinformation use to exaggerate grassroots support for a cause or to create confusion.


Discuss: Why do you think photos and videos of protests are such common targets for purveyors of misinformation?


Haitian migrants didn’t kneel wearing “Biden please let us in” t-shirts

A tweet with a photo of people kneeling and wearing matching t-shirts that say “Biden please let us in.” The text “So, y’all telling me Haitians went and purchased shirts that says… ‘Biden Please Let Us In’” appears above the photo. The News Literacy Project added an “Out of Context” label.

NO: The photo in this tweet does not show a group of Haitian migrants at the Texas-Mexico border wearing “Biden please let us in” t-shirts in September 2021. YES: It shows a group of migrants at a border crossing at Tijuana and San Diego wearing shirts with the same wording and was taken on March 2, 2021.

NewsLit takeaway: Controversial issues such as immigration commonly engender both disinformation (e.g., photos intentionally taken out of context) and misinformation (e.g., photos mistakenly or inadvertently shared out of context) — though it’s often difficult or impossible to know the motivations behind such posts. In addition to presenting a photo in a false context, this post also appears to imply that migrants were given these shirts as part of a political tactic to damage President Joe Biden. The same conspiratorial questions previously circulated in March.

Resource: “Fact-check it! Misinformation classroom activity” (NLP’s Resource Library).


Actor George Clooney didn’t wear this anti-MAGA t-shirt

A Facebook post of a photo of the actor George Clooney wearing a t-shirt that reads “Losers in 1865 [next to a Confederate flag], Losers in 1945 [next to a Nazi flag], Losers in 2020 [next to a red MAGA hat].” The News Literacy Project added a 'Doctored Image' label and an inlaid image of Clooney's authentic shirt, which has a tequila logo on it.

NO: The actor George Clooney did not wear a shirt that compared MAGA supporters to Confederates and Nazis, calling them all “losers.” YES: The authentic photo of Clooney — which was taken in September 2015, more than five years before the 2020 election — shows that the shirt actually featured a tequila logo. YES: Clooney has been publicly critical of former President Donald Trump in the past.

The original photo — taken on Sept. 8, 2015, in New York City by Getty Images photographer John Lamparski — shows that Clooney actually wore a t-shirt with the Casamigos tequila logo.

NewsLit takeaway: Printed messages, including those on t-shirts, are particularly easy to alter and should always be approached with skepticism — especially when they spark a strong emotion or confirm your biases. Also, it’s helpful to note that many of the provocative t-shirt designs that have been digitally added to celebrity photos can be found for sale online. In this case, not only is the “losers” anti-Trump shirt available for purchase, but one of the webpages features the product using a cropped version of the fake Clooney photo. The same product page features a “Keep America Trumpless” t-shirt that was recently added to a photo of the actor Chris Evans:

Discuss: What might motivate people to digitally add political messages on celebrities’ t-shirts? How could this kind of fake message be harmful? What possible motivation for creating and spreading these false images is tied to the fact that many of these shirts are sold online?

You can find this week's rumor examples in this slide presentation.
NLP's FREE News Literacy Educator Network. Join NewsLit Nation.
Kickers: Journalism slang. The ending of a story or nes report, often intended to leave a lasting impression.

New research suggests positive social feedback motivates people to share conspiracy theories and other misinformation — even when they know what they're sharing is false. (There's no shortage of bogus, "made-to-go-viral" content out there.) Anti-vaccine social media groups are urging people to take increasingly aggressive and dangerous actions, like removing loved ones from ICUs and administering unsafe “vigilante treatments.” Is there a way to actually “fix” social media’s many problems? And an active shooter exercise recently sparked real news reports when participants mistook reporters as part of the drill. (Yikes!)

Elsewhere: Local news organizations, nonprofits and universities are teaming up to report on affordable housing issues in the Dallas area. Facebook is pausing its Instagram for kids project. And finally, political cartoons have played an important role in history — but the decline of print has “permanently decoupled” them from journalism, and the form may be forever changed as a result.


Thanks for reading!

Your weekly issue of The Sift is created by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams), Hannah Covington (@HannahCov) and Pamela Brunskill (@PamelaBrunskill), and edited by Mary Kane (@marykkane).

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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.