It’s National News Literacy Week, and the theme for Jan. 28, is “Identifying standards-based journalism.” Knowing how to recognize authoritative, fact-based reporting is crucial in becoming news-literate, and a recent exchange between Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo offers several news literacy lessons — specifically about the use of sources and about the watchdog role of the press.
The issue began during Kelly’s interview with Pompeo at the State Department on Jan. 24. They began by discussing Iran; when Kelly attempted to change the subject to Ukraine, Pompeo resisted.
She said she had confirmed with his staff the previous evening that she wanted to discuss Ukraine as well as Iran, but he made it clear that he did not want to address the topic. Kelly persisted, asking the secretary whether he “owed Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch an apology” and whether he had “defended” her. Pompeo replied that he had “defended every single person on this team,” adding: “I’ve said all I’m going to say today.”
Shortly thereafter, an aide to Pompeo stopped the interview, which lasted about nine minutes.
In an interview on NPR later that afternoon with her All Things Considered co-host Ari Shapiro, she explained what happened next: “And you heard me thank the secretary. He did not reply. He leaned in, glared at me and then turned and, with his aides, left the room.”
Kelly told Shapiro that moments later, the same staffer who had stopped the interview returned and asked her to come with her — “just me, no recorder, though she did not say we were off the record, nor would I have agreed.”
The journalist was taken to the secretary’s private living room. She said he was “not happy” about the questions on Ukraine, adding that he shouted at her and used expletives.
In a Jan. 25 statement, Pompeo called Kelly “shameful” for violating “the basic rules of journalism and decency.” He also accused her of lying to him twice — last month “in setting up the interview and, then again yesterday, in agreeing to have our post-interview conversation off the record.” In a development that journalists perceive as retaliation, an NPR reporter who has covered the State Department for nearly two decades was removed from the press pool for Pompeo’s trip to Europe and Central Asia (including Ukraine) this week.
Here is how The Associated Press, which produces more than 2,000 stories each day, defines terms used in granting anonymity (other news outlets may define them somewhat differently):
“On the record”: The information provided can be published, quoting the source by name.
“Off the record”: Neither the information nor the source’s name can be published, but the reporter can use what is learned to get the information verified elsewhere.
“On background”: The information can be published, but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Sources may not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position. (Other news outlets may refer to this as “not for attribution”; some may even distinguish between “not for attribution” and “on background.”)
“On deep background”: Information can be used, but without attribution (not identifying the source in any way, including that the source spoke “on condition of anonymity”)
In addition, a group of Democratic senators wrote a letter to Pompeo (PDF) in response to his statement about Kelly.
Discuss: Why do journalists allow sources to speak off the record? Do you think there is anything unethical about journalists getting information that they agree, in advance, not to report without getting it verified elsewhere (preferably on the record)? In what situations might gathering information off the record actually serve to protect the public’s interest? How do you think Kelly handled the interview with Pompeo after he made it clear he did not want to talk about Ukraine? Should she have done anything differently? How did NPR handle the coverage of itself? Was it appropriate? Why or why not?
Idea: Have students listen to Pompeo’s NPR interview. Review the transcripts of the interview and of Kelly’s appearance on All Things Considered, then have them read the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Did Kelly violate any journalism practices, as Pompeo asserted? Were her questions about Yovanovitch examples of doing good journalism, or were they unfair in some way?
Viral rumor rundown
A Jan. 18 Facebook post falsely claiming that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used billions in Social Security funds to cover the cost of the House’s impeachment inquiry continues to spark outrage online. It has been reshared more than 2,500 times.
Note: The practice of repurposing the content of satirical articles (especially those with outrageous, click-inducing headlines) on websites that have no satire labels or disclaimers is a common way for opportunists to generate page views and ad revenue online.
NO: There is as yet no vaccine for the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (also known as the “Wuhan coronavirus”), and the current outbreak was not planned as a way to sell vaccines. NO: The Wuhan coronavirus was not created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NO: A 2015 patent application does not prove that the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak was planned, nor does it connect the outbreak to Bill Gates. YES: Conspiracy theorists are misinterpreting a 2015 patent application by a vaccinology research organization (one that receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) for a vaccine that would prevent a different strain of coronavirus in birds and other animals. YES: On Jan. 23, the conspiracy website Infowars published an article making these false claims.
Note: The misinterpretation of complex technical information by non-experts is common among conspiracy theorists.
Note: Purveyors of misinformation often seize on major news events to generate clicks and to build up a large online following that they can later monetize.
Five to teach
“Republicans and Democrats place their trust in two nearly inverse news media environments”: That’s the conclusion of a recent Pew Research Center study examining Americans’ perception of the sources they turn to for political and election news. Republicans reported having a greater distrust than trust in 20 of the 30 news sources included in the survey, while Democrats reported having a greater trust than distrust in 22 of them. The sources included broadcast and cable networks, print and online news outlets, and radio programs.
The study, released Jan. 24, also found that while Democrats highly trust and rely on a number of news sources, Republicans overwhelmingly trust and rely on Fox News over other sources. When compared with the findings of a similar study in 2014, these results show a widening partisan divide, Pew noted.
Discuss: What factors are driving the partisan divide in perceptions of news media? Are these perceptions the results of changes in news coverage in recent years, or changes in public attitudes and beliefs, or both? Does this divide pose a threat to American democracy? Why or why not? What effect might pundits and others who regularly criticize “the media” have on these results? What effect do you think social media has had?
Give pairs or groups of students five to 10 minutes with this sortable table of results from the study, then ask them to share at least one insight or data point that they found to be particularly significant.
Discuss: How can people avoid falling for photos, videos and quotes presented out of context or in false contexts? What role do our emotions play when we encounter such pieces of misinformation?
Journalists covering the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump are having to deal with restrictions on their access to the 100 lawmakers who are serving as the jury. While reporters are normally permitted to roam freely and talk directly to lawmakers, they are being cordoned off on the Senate side of the Capitol; to enter the Senate Press Gallery, they have to pass through a magnetometer, preventing them from bringing in their phones and other devices.
Video coverage is being provided not by a broadcast or cable network (not even C-SPAN, which produces daily feeds of Senate and House proceedings), but by a government entity calling itself “Capitol Hill Senate TV.” The result: a single camera focused on individual speakers (the House impeachment managers and the lawyers on Trump’s defense team), with an occasional overhead view of the chamber.
Discuss: Are these restrictions a press freedom issue, or are they a reasonable way for the Senate to manage the trial? Does limiting media access to the impeachment trial diminish the impact of coverage of the proceedings?
Idea: Have students research news coverage about other high-profile, targeted killings carried out by the U.S. military (against known terrorists, for example). Were the terms “assassination” or “murder” ever used in straight-news coverage?
Another idea: Tweet to one or more standards editors at major news outlets and ask them whether they think the term “assassination” should be used to describe Soleimani’s killing and why.
The Washington Post has suspended a reporter for tweets that it contends may have violated its social media policy. Just hours after NBA star Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, Felicia Sonmez, a national reporter with the Post’s breaking political news team, tweeted a link to a Daily Beast article from 2016 — the year Bryant retired from the Los Angeles Lakers — summarizing sexual assault allegations made against him in 2003. (Bryant later settled with his accuser, saying he believed that their encounter was consensual while understanding that she might not.)
Later that afternoon, Sonmez told The New York Times, she received an email from Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor: “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.”
Backlash against Sonmez’s tweet was swift and fierce, amounting to what she described in a subsequent tweet as “10,000 (literally) people who have commented and emailed me with abuse and death threats.” She also tweeted a screenshot of abusive emails in her inbox that showed the senders’ names. The Post placed Sonmez on administrative leave while it investigated whether one or more of her tweets violated its social media policy.
Note: The Washington Post Newspaper Guild posted a statement in support of Sonmez this afternoon, asserting that “the Post’s arbitrary and over-broad social media policy” has “fundamental flaws.”
Discuss: Do you think Sonmez was wrong to tweet a link to a 2016 story about sexual assault allegations against Kobe Bryant so soon after he was killed? Do you think her tweet violates the Post’s social media policy? Did the tweet make it harder for other Post reporters to do their work on this story?
The New York Times’ Research & Development group is seeking ways to clarify the provenance of photos online using blockchain technology. The News Provenance Project — an initiative dedicated to collaborating “with publishers and platforms to help combat misinformation” — is exploring ways to attach contextual information to news photos so that their origins travel with them across the web. Drawing on extensive interviews with a diverse group of 15 daily users of social media, the developers created a prototype of what this embedded source information technology might look like.
In theory, creating a such a system would increase people’s trust in the authenticity of images by adding transparency to the process; it would also make it more difficult for bad actors to fool people by presenting photos out of context. However, the pilot testing of the prototype produced some mixed results.
How can blockchain technology be used to clarify the origins of online photos? What metadata can digital photos currently contain? Why is placing visuals in a false context such a common misinformation tactic? What else could responsible publishers do to increase trust in their work?
Use this as an opportunity to introduce students to photo metadata and to tools — such as EXIF data readers — that can decode information that is often embedded in digital images. (Such data can contain the date, time and exact location where a photo was taken, along with the device used, and most social media platforms now automatically strip this data from photos uploaded by users.) This may also help students better understand the work of the News Provenance Project.
Note: One vital function of local journalists is to attend public meetings of governmental bodies, in part to report on municipal matters, but also to local government leadership for any signs of malfeasance.
Idea: Have students research the state of local journalism in their region. Are there any communities lacking news coverage? If so, what happened? Did a local news outlet recently shut down? How long has the community gone without news coverage? Once students have explored these questions, have them interview a representative sample of community members to discover how they feel about the loss of local coverage.
A New Hampshire state representative has introduced legislation that would require the state’s news outlets to update crime stories that were published online when the person identified as arrested, charged or tried is acquitted or found not guilty, or if the charges are dismissed — a requirement that the state’s journalists say is a threat to press freedoms.
Republican Jack Flanagan, the sponsor of House Bill 1157, said during a Jan. 15 hearing that he was inspired to introduce the bill after constituents who had been named in such reports complained that they were unable to get a job or find housing because of their link to a criminal case.
Under the legislation, individuals requesting the update would have to provide “written notification” to news outlets about the disposal of their case, and a news outlet’s failure to update would make it liable for any consequent damages the person experiences. The bill makes no mention of updates to reports in print media or on television or radio.
Discuss: Should news outlets update stories about criminal charges if people mentioned in them are later acquitted or found not guilty, or if the charges are dropped? Should a news outlet be held liable if a person is denied a job or housing because of news stories online? Does an online update mean that the damaging information is gone from the internet? Why might press freedom advocates oppose laws and other government actions that seek to control or change news coverage?