Watchdog journalism holds the powerful to account and plays an important role in democracy. This week, we talk to Emily Hoerner of the Chicago Tribune about her recent story on public restroom access and how “Chicago’s government has failed to provide the public with easy, consistent access to free toilets.” We also consider the role of public records in investigations as we discuss how this story came together. Grab your news goggles!
Dig deeper: Use this viewing guide for the featured News Goggles video and article as students consider how watchdog journalism can shine a light on issues of public importance.
Blockbuster reporting on a cache of internal documents from Facebook — dubbed The Facebook Papers — continues to dominate headlines. Some of the documents first released by whistleblower Frances Haugen to The Wall Street Journal were later given to a consortium of 17 news organizations. Here are our top three picks for news literacy-relevant coverage on this important ongoing story.
“Five points for anger, one for a ‘like’: How Facebook’s formula fostered rage and misinformation” (Jeremy B. Merrill and Will Oremus, The Washington Post).
In 2017, Facebook’s content suggestion algorithm began giving emoji reactions, such as anger or sadness or love, five times the weight of a standard “like,” according to this report. In 2019, the company confirmed that boosting posts with anger reactions served to amplify “civic misinfo, civic toxicity, health misinfo, and health antivax content,” but it was slow to address the problem.
“How Facebook users wield multiple accounts to spread toxic politics” (Julia Arciga and Susannah Luthi, Politico).
Facebook knows that single users who operate multiple accounts — or “SUMAs” in the company’s internal parlance — are “a massive source of the platform’s toxic politics,” and company research from 2018 suggested they could be reaching about 11 million people a day. Leaked documents show that some employees feel the company has done little to crack down on them, despite their clear violation of the platform’s community standards — but a Facebook spokesperson said this doesn’t “paint a comprehensive picture” of the issue.
Discuss: Which of the findings from reporting on The Facebook Papers do you find most troubling? Which surprised you? Which didn’t? If you were put in charge of Facebook, what would you do to fix these problems?
NO: This is not an authentic tweet from Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. YES: It is a fake tweet that references the absurd conspiracy theory — pushed by amateur online “sleuths” — that Greene is the person who left pipe bombs near political targets in Capitol Hill on Jan. 5, the day before the insurrection.
NewsLit takeaway: Conspiracy theorists often engage in motivated reasoning and confirmation bias to manufacture “evidence” for their beliefs. In this case, anonymous posters online scrutinized photos of Greene to find similarities with people involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection and with the Capitol pipe bomber, who was captured in video footage released by the FBI. Greene is a controversial lawmaker who embraces QAnon beliefs and actively espouses conspiracy theories — and some reporting alleges she met with two Jan. 6 protest organizers prior to the event, a charge her spokesman denied. Greene also has downplayed the Jan. 6 attack and described it as “just a riot.” But there is no evidence indicating that she had anything to do with the attempted pipe bombing.
NO: Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not show that children are “107 times more likely to die” from a COVID-19 vaccine than from the disease itself. YES: This is a baseless assertion, attributed to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a well-known opponent of vaccines, that was also used in a fundraising campaign for the organization he founded and runs. YES: In a statement to AFP Fact Check, the CDC confirmed that it “has not detected any unusual or unexpected patterns for deaths following immunization that would indicate that Covid vaccines are causing or contributing to deaths of adults or children.” YES: Out of the more than 414 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines that have been administered in the United States as of Oct. 25, 2021, there have been a total of five confirmed adult deaths linked to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
NewsLit takeaway: Anti-vaccine rhetoric is highly emotional and often exploits parents’ love and concern for their children’s well-being to plant a seed of doubt about the safety of vaccines. This particular quote doesn’t identify the source of the “CDC data” it purports to cite. However, many false anti-vaccination claims are extrapolated from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System — or VAERS — database, an open portal that allows anyone to self-report “possible health problems” experienced after a vaccine, even minor ones such as soreness at the injection site. All evidence continues to show that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective.
NO: This photo is not from “drone footage” of a cargo ship off the coast of the United States in 2021. YES: It’s a photo of the MV Tampa, a Norwegian cargo ship that rescued a group of mostly Afghan refugees in the Indian Ocean in August 2001.
NewsLit takeaway: Conspiracy theorists often come up with convoluted ways to incorporate current events into their baseless hypotheses about the world, and the 2021 container ship crisis is no exception. Baseless claims that the gridlock at U.S. ports is a staged event to achieve political goals — such as a “communist plot” to cripple the American economy or use shipping containers as some kind of “Trojan horse” — have circulated online in recent weeks. Rumors attempting to connect cargo ships and incidents in ports to nefarious, conspiratorial activities have a history, especially among adherents of the QAnon belief system.
You can find this week's rumor examples to use with students in these slides.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board defended the opinion section’s decision to run a letter to the editor full of election disinformation from former President Donald Trump. The decision to run the letter sparked criticism from the paper's readership as well as staff on the news side at the paper, which is separate from the opinion section.
Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto, who has survived several major health challenges, got a breakthrough case of COVID-19 — then had his life threatened by viewers of the network after he urged them to get vaccinated.
When a breast cancer patient’s oncologist urged her to get a COVID-19 vaccine, her husband — steeped in misinformation and conspiracy theories — vowed to file for divorce.
Caution: Celebrity gossip can lead to QAnon rabbit holes.
USA Today digital subscribers can now text the fact-checking team for clarity on viral content and attend weekly “office hours” to discuss trending topics.
The Los Angeles Times is creating a “meme team” and other working groups as part of its audience engagement efforts.