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.
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.”
Discuss: Are any of these findings surprising? Why or why not? How do you get your news? If you get news on social media, is it intentional or incidental? How can you ensure the news you find on social media is credible? Why do you think age may play a role in how people view the news media? How much do you trust national news organizations compared to other sources of information? Why?
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.
Note: Many of Richards’ videos contain profanity, including one embedded in the Vice news report linked above. Plaar's video linked above also includes strong language.
Reminder: It is vital to exercise great caution when discussing extremist ideologies with students.
Discuss: Why do white nationalists and other extremists use coded language, obscure symbols and esoteric Nazi legends as recruitment tools on mainstream social media platforms? Why do extremists work to remain on mainstream platforms instead of retreating to more obscure sites and platforms where there is little or no content moderation? What should major social media platforms be doing to keep up with the evasive tactics of extremists?
Viral rumor rundown
Video of protest in Romania is from 2017, unrelated to vaccines
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
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 immigrationcommonlyengender 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.
Actor George Clooney didn’t wear this anti-MAGA t-shirt
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 publiclycritical 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?
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.