The Sift: Press freedoms 2020 | Vaccine rumors spike | Understanding news sources


Teach news literacy this week
Press freedoms 2020 | Vaccine rumors spike | Understanding news sources

NOTE: The Sift is taking a winter break. We’ll be back in your inbox on Monday, Jan. 11.

The state of press freedoms

In a year dominated by history-making news — a global pandemic, the renewed movement for racial justice, a divisive U.S. presidential election — it can be easy to overlook the risks journalists face in doing their jobs. A report (PDF) by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) serves as a reminder of these dangers, highlighting that 42 journalists have been killed in 2020 so far in crossfire, bombings and other violence in 15 countries. (IFJ reported that 49 journalists were killed in 2019.)

In addition, at least 235 journalists are currently imprisoned in connection with their work, the Dec. 10 report noted. Since 1990, when IFJ, the world’s largest organization of journalists, began publishing its yearly tally, 2,658 journalists have been killed. “The untold story,” according to IFJ, is that the majority of journalists murdered over the last three decades were local beat reporters, not war correspondents. They were often targeted, kidnapped and killed, sometimes near their offices or homes. And around the world, killers of journalists mostly go free; in 90% of journalist murder cases, “there has been little or no prosecution,” the report said.

Note: For the fourth time in five years, Mexico has been the deadliest country for journalists with 13 killings in 2020, the report said. Turkey has the highest number of imprisoned journalists, with 67 behind bars.
Idea: Have groups of students use the Committee to Protect Journalists’ database of attacks on the press to search for journalists killed in 2020. Ask the students to research some of the journalists in the database and share what they found. What stories were the journalists working on? Why do students think the journalists were targeted?
Resource: “Press Freedoms Around the World” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).

Viral rumor rundown

NO: Two people who took the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine during a trial did not die as a result of the injections. YES: The two trial participants died from other causes (one from a heart attack about two months after the second dose, and another from “baseline obesity and pre-existing arteriosclerosis,” or hardening of the arteries).

Note: According to the PolitiFact fact-check linked above, a total of six of the 43,448 people who participated in Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine trial died, including the two mentioned above and four participants who were given a placebo. None of the deaths has been attributed to the vaccine.


NO: There is no microchip in the COVID-19 vaccine. YES: The video in this Facebook post includes out-of-context clips of an interview — originally broadcast on the Christian Broadcasting Network talk show The 700 Club on May 22 — with Jay Walker of ApiJect Systems Corp., a medical technology company. YES: In the interview, Walker described an emergency tracking feature on the exterior of a syringe the company developed with government backing to expedite delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine. NO: The optional Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip on the syringes would not track patients’ personal location. YES: It is designed to track vaccine expiration and the location of delivery, and to combat counterfeiting of the vaccine. YES: The headline on the original story on The 700 Club website is also misleading. YES: This same video clip has been used to spread misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine before.

Note: Baseless claims about injectable microchips are common in anti-vaccination propaganda and “New World Order” conspiracy theories.

Related: “As Vaccine Approvals Loom, U.S. Funds A Backup Plan For Delivery” (Dina Temple-Raston, NPR).


NO: There is no evidence connecting leukemia in children with the trace amounts of formaldehyde in vaccines. YES: Formaldehyde is an organic compound that occurs naturally in the human body. NO: Neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine contains a preservative. YES: False claims about formaldehyde in vaccines have circulated for years and resurfaced as COVID-19 vaccines were in development.


NO: This photo does not show a gathering of supporters of President Donald Trump. YES: It shows participants in the 2018 “March for Our Lives” protest against gun violence. YES: Thousands of people gathered in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 12 for the second “Million MAGA March.”

★ Featured rumor resource: These classroom-ready slides lead your students through a close examination of this tweet. They will learn how to locate an authentic copy of this (since deleted) tweet, find the source of the photo and confirm the location using Google Street View.


NO: Georgia Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler did not wear a wire in a Dec. 6 debate with Rev. Raphael Warnock, her Democratic opponent in the upcoming Jan. 5 runoff elections. YES: This is a common false accusation made about political candidates.

Related: “The Long History of ‘Hidden Earpiece’ Conspiracy Theories” (Kevin Roose, The New York Times).

It’s a fear that can keep a journalist up at night: a factual error in a news report. Accuracy is paramount in journalism. Journalists at standards-based news organizations work to verify and fact-check each piece of information in their reporting. But what happens when occasional mistakes occur? Quality news organizations take factual inaccuracies very seriously. When journalists discover mistakes, they should correct the information as soon as they can and provide clear explanations.

Being transparent about mistakes — and accountable for them — is a key characteristic that separates credible news organizations from other sources of information. Let’s examine several recent news reports and consider how different news organizations handled corrections. Grab your news goggles. Let’s go!

★ Featured News Goggles resource: These classroom-ready slides offer annotations, discussion questions and teaching ideas related to this week’s topic.

Note: New research reveals that Johns Hopkins, founder of the university and hospital that bear his name and long considered a “staunch abolitionist,” actually owned slaves, according to a Baltimore Sun news report. The reporting helps underscore the importance of correcting the historical record when new information comes to light — even decades later.

Discuss: Why is it important for news organizations to correct inaccuracies? How does correcting mistakes make a news source more trustworthy? How often do standards-based sources of news make errors of fact? What types of errors are the most common?

Idea: Ask students to research corrections policies and standards posted online for a few local news organizations. How do these policies compare? Do the policies outline how to contact the newsrooms about mistakes? Connect your students with one of NLP’s journalist volunteers using the Checkology journalist directory and have a conversation about errors and corrections. Discuss the steps the journalist takes to prevent corrections and correct factual inaccuracies.

Another Idea: Select one of the news reports included in this week’s slides. To demonstrate the number of facts that journalists are verifying in a typical news report, ask students to tally the facts in the selected article. Be sure the students look for name spellings, job titles, organization names, dates, locations, quotes, etc. How would students go about fact-checking this report?

Resources: “Practicing Quality Journalism” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom) and Newsroom to Classroom (NLP’s Checkology® directory of journalist volunteers).


★ Sift Picks


“Measuring News Consumption in a Digital Era” (Pew Research Center).

A new study from Pew Research Center found that “only 9% of U.S. adults are very confident that they can tell if a news organization does its own reporting” and also found significant confusion over whether major technology companies like Google, Apple and Facebook produce original reporting. The report, which examines how to research news consumption habits in the digital age, questioned respondents about six sources of news as outlined by Pew: ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, HuffPost, Google News, Apple News and Facebook. Researchers found that “nearly a quarter of Americans (23%) could not correctly identify whether any of the six sources do original reporting.”

Note: Some examples of "original reporting" include conducting interviews and covering news events or researching documents firsthand. While journalists sometimes "pick up" information originally reported by other newsrooms, they work to confirm this information themselves. Organizations that only produce commentary and opinion content about news coverage, as well as news aggregators, generally do not do their own reporting and instead pull from the original reporting of other news organizations.

Discuss: How do students get their news? Do they use news aggregators, such as Google News, Apple News or Flipboard? What separates news aggregators from the original reporting produced by standards-based news organizations? Does original reporting impact the credibility of a news source?

Idea: Test students’ ability to identify original reporting. Ask them to examine the six sources of news identified in the study (listed above) and decide which produce original news reporting. How do they know? Compare students’ answers with the findings in the report. How do their results compare to survey respondents?

Resource: “Practicing Quality Journalism” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).


Quick Picks

“Online influencers have become powerful vectors in promoting false information and conspiracy theories” (Ali Abbas Ahmadi and Esther Chan, First Draft).

  • Discuss: Do celebrities and influencers have a responsibility to make sure that information they share is credible? Why are people especially vulnerable to misinformation spread by celebrities? Do you agree with the authors that the role of actors, musicians, athletes and other online influencers “requires more scrutiny, especially from social platforms and media”? Should social media platforms apply a different set of content moderation rules to influencer accounts (accounts with large followings) than to other users? Why or why not? Have students ever encountered questionable or false information shared by influencers?
  • Idea: Ask students to compile a shared document of examples of misinformation spread by celebrities. How can average social media users push back on such falsehoods?
  • Another idea: Have students debate whether social media companies should apply more stringent content moderation tools to social media influencer accounts. (This idea has been proposed by the disinformation researcher Joan Donovan.)

“'Facebook Gets Paid'” (Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac, BuzzFeed News).

  • Discuss: Should Facebook be held responsible for the types of ads it allows on its platform? Should it be held responsible for the ways its ad targeting system is used (for example, aiming ads of young girls at middle-aged men)? Is TikTok also responsible for this practice, since it purchased the ads? If you were in charge of Facebook, what rules would you put in place for moderating ads?
  • Idea: Explore Facebook’s ad targeting system by initiating a small ad purchase on the platform. (Note: You do not need to actually purchase the ad to see the audience segmenting and targeting tools.)

“Predictions for Journalism 2021” (Nieman Lab).

  • Discuss: According to these journalists and media experts, how might journalism change next year? Do any patterns or trends emerge in these predictions? Which predictions do students agree with?
  • Idea: Divide students into groups and have each group select a piece from this collection of predictions to read and discuss. What did students find most interesting or revealing? Ask each group to compile its thoughts into a short written response. Consider sharing these responses with the authors.
  • Another Idea: As a follow-up, compare the journalism predictions for 2021 with those from 2020. Are any similar? Do any of the 2020 predictions feel especially relevant based on the news landscape from the last 12 months?

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) of the News Literacy Project. It is edited by NLP’s 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.