The Sift: Press freedoms amid COVID-19 | More transparency from Facebook and Google | Infographics demystifying journalism

  News Literacy Project
The next decade is critical for the future of journalism, and the COVID-19 pandemic is deepening existing crises that already threaten free and independent reporting, Reporters Without Borders said April 21 as it released its annual World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries and regions on the level of freedom they afford journalists.

Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of the Paris-based media advocacy organization also known as Reporters sans frontières (RSF), said that the pandemic is exacerbating “the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information”: a geopolitical crisis, a technological crisis, a democratic crisis, a crisis of trust and an economic crisis.

In its overview of the rankings, RSF noted “a clear correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic and a country’s ranking.” China (177th) and Iran (173rd) censored information about the spread of COVID-19, RSF said.

The director of RSF’s London office, Rebecca Vincent, rebuked the Chinese government for its lack of truthful reporting when it first had the opportunity to provide information.

"If there had been a free press in China, if these whistleblowers hadn't been silenced, then this could have been prevented from turning into a pandemic," she told CNN Business. "Sometimes we can talk about press freedom in a theoretical way, but this shows the impact can at times be physical. It can affect all of our health."

A spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Geng Shuang, dismissed RSF’s criticism, saying that the organization “has always held deep-rooted prejudice against China” and its report “is not worth rebutting.”

The United States was 45th this year in the RSF rankings, an improvement of three places from 2019. Norway ranks first, as it has since 2017, and North Korea dropped one place to become the least free country, as it was in 2018 and 2017 (Turkmenistan occupied last place in 2019). Due to change brought about by general elections in May 2018, Malaysia had the largest improvement (22 places) to 101st, while Haiti — where protesters have targeted journalists — experienced the most significant drop (21 places) to 83rd.

While RSF’s “global indicator” — its measure of the overall state of press freedom — improved by 0.9% in 2020, it has declined by 12% since its creation in 2013. According to that indicator, press freedom is in a “very serious situation” in 13% of the countries and regions around the world, an increase of 2 percentage points from 2019.
Discuss: What makes the press in a given country “free”? Why is freedom of the press important? How does the level of press freedoms in the United States compare with what is found other countries? What role does a free press play in democratic societies?
Idea: Ask students to guess which countries around the world have the greatest and least amount of press freedoms. Then have them research their hypotheses using Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 rankings. Finally, help them contact a journalist in one of the countries they researched so they can ask questions by email or request a brief videoconference.
Resource: “Press Freedoms Around the World” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom). Note: This lesson will be updated with the 2020 rankings this summer.
NO: The protest sign in this tweet is not authentic. YES: The sign actually said “Give me liberty or give me death” (h/t @jjmacnab). YES: The photo — taken on April 17 in Huntington Beach, California — shows people protesting statewide stay-at-home orders.

Note: The photo, by Jeff Gritchen of The Orange County Register, is included in the gallery at the top of this report on the protest (possible paywall).
NO: These people pictured outside the state capitol building in Denver did attend an April 19 protest against Colorado’s stay-at-home order, but they did not hold the signs shown in the tweet above. YES: The signs in the photo (taken by Jason Connolly of AFP) actually said “Fear is the real virus,” “Hot, nasty, badass freedom,” “Reopen CO now!” and “This ‘cure’ is deadlier than COVID.”
NO: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did not digitally add a Confederate flag to a photo of a protest against a recent extension of the stay-at-home order in Wisconsin. YES: The man holding a pole flying a Gadsden flag (“Don’t tread on me”) above a Confederate flag can be seen (at around the 0:20 mark) in a video of the protest posted to Facebook. YES: Another man wearing a nearly identical plaid shirt was holding another pole with a Gadsden flag.

Related: Discuss: What standards and ethics policies relating to photos do quality news organizations strive to abide by? What kinds of alterations to photos are ethical and allowed at standards-based news organizations? What kinds are not? What kinds of consequences might photojournalists face if they are caught breaching those standards?

Idea: Invite a photojournalist from a local news outlet to discuss photojournalism ethics and standards with your students.
NO: News Break, an aggregator of local news reports, did not use a photo of people walking on a beach in Jacksonville, Florida, to illustrate an item about the COVID-19 death toll in Los Angeles County. NO: No news organization attempted to pass off this photo of a beach in Jacksonville as a beach in Los Angeles County. YES: The New York Post used the photo with its report about the reopening of beaches in Jacksonville. YES: As shown in the tweet above, News Break’s Facebook page had a post linking to NBC News’ live coronavirus blog; at that particular time, that blog featured an item about the death toll in Los Angeles County and included an item about the Jacksonville beach opening (from which the photo was pulled by an algorithm, a News Break spokesman told
NO: President Donald Trump did not say that “hundreds of governors are calling” him. YES: During an April 13 briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump said the White House had received has “hundreds of statements, including from Democrats and Democrat governors,” praising his administration for its response to the outbreak. YES: A Snopes fact check (linked in the first sentence of this item) found that Trump publicly referred to “all 50” governors at least twice in late March. YES: This copy-and-paste viral rumor — with identical capitalization and misplaced punctuation — spread across both Facebook (above) and Twitter last week.  

The same language, the same capitalization and the same misplaced punctuation also circulated on Twitter.

Both Facebook and Google have announced new transparency measures intended to give users more information about who is behind the posts and ads they see. In an April 22 Facebook Newsroom post, Anita Joseph and Georgina Sheedy-Collier, product managers for Facebook and Instagram (owned by Facebook), said that the platforms will be providing “the location of high-reach Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts on every post they share.” The following day, John Canfield, Google’s director of product management and ad integrity announced that beginning this summer, the company will require all advertisers on its platforms — including those using the Google AdSense program, which places targeted ads on almost 11 million websites across the internet — to provide “information that proves who they are and the country in which they operate.”

Joseph and Sheedy-Collier said that the new feature would be piloted in the United States, starting with “Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts that are based outside the US but reach large audiences based primarily in the US,” though they didn’t specifically define what was meant by “high-reach.” Canfield said that Google would start by verifying information for advertisers in the United States before expanding the program worldwide, noting that that this initiative would take years to complete.

The world’s largest social media company and the world’s most popular search engine have introduced a variety of measures to improve transparency since their platforms were used by state-sponsored disinformation agents seeking to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election (PDF).
Related: “Google Will Require Proof of Identity From All Advertisers” (Tiffany Hsu and Daisuke Wakabayashi, The New York Times).
Discuss: What impact do you think these transparency measures will have? Should Facebook and Google have taken these steps sooner? How challenging is content moderation for tech companies? Are there transparency features and tools that should (but don’t) exist on major social media and digital advertising platforms? What are they? What other kinds of tools could social media platforms add to help their users better understand what they see?
Idea: Review with students the existing transparency features on Facebook, including its page transparency section and its instructions on viewing the data the platform has collected about them, and Google’s “Why This Ad?” link and data profile tools.
Much of the conversation about ensuring that quality journalism continues to have an audience has focused on “demystifying journalism”— explaining how and why reporters and editors do what they do and what it all means. The Spokesman-Review, the daily newspaper in Spokane, Washington, entered this conversation on April 20 with two informational graphics by features design editor Charles Apple.

“Newspapers 101” explains the difference between a “news story,” an “editorial” and a “column.” It also describes who writes headlines, how the newsroom is structured and how errors are corrected.

“Fake News” explores why many Americans currently do not trust — or even like — news coverage and journalists. It examines the evolution of so-called fake news and the contributions of the internet and social media to the problem. It also offers a list of fact-checking sites and tips to combat misinformation, such as “be skeptical,” “consider the source” and “check the date.”

In addition, it highlights the “political manipulation of the public,” touching on misinformation spread by foreign propaganda operations and on President Donald Trump’s frequent criticism of journalists and news organizations. “Questioning the president — or any other government official — on his actions, his statements or apparent changes in policy based on his statements is not wrong. This is, in fact, the role of the media in a democracy,” Apple wrote.
Idea: Divide your students into two groups and give each group one of the infographics. Ask students in each group to document what they learned and what questions they still have. Next, have students from the two groups teach each other what they learned, either in pairs or in a group presentation. Then collect all the questions from students in both groups and send them to a local journalist with a request for a videoconference to discuss them.
Journalists and media critics are debating how news organizations should cover the “reopen America” protests, even as additional reports about the supporters of the movement — including anti-vaccination activists and an ad hoc collection of conservative groups — continue to be published. In an April 21 piece in Wired, Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor in the department of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, noted that the publication and subsequent spread of photos that are entirely filled with people can exaggerate the size and sophistication of the movement. She also pointed out that such groups often like the attention they receive from media coverage.

Writing in Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram echoed Phillips’ concerns, arguing that these events need to be portrayed “as accurately as possible” without “suggesting that they are larger or more broadly supported than they really are.” He added that, in his view, all news reports about the protests “should mention the machinations of the various political organizations that have been fanning the flames.”
Note: On April 20, Facebook removed several anti-quarantine events and banned some users from creating future events in states where such gatherings violate physical separation orders.
Discuss: Are the “reopen America” protests newsworthy? Should local news organizations cover such protests in their state? Should national news outlets cover them? What might happen if news organizations ignored the events? How should journalists work to cover the protests in a way that doesn’t sensationalize them or exaggerate their momentum? Should photojournalists document the people attending these protests who display offensive signs or flags, or who carry assault rifles? Why or why not?
Related: “Anti-Vaxxers, Gun Nuts, and QAnon: Germany’s Bizarre Anti-Lockdown Protests Are Uniting the Fringe Right and Left” (Tim Hume, Vice News).
Your weekly issue of The Sift is put together by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams) and Suzannah Gonzales of the News Literacy Project.
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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