Teach news literacy this week Satire outrage | Reporter's ban lifted | Ask a Journalist
Viral rumor rundown
★ Viral rumor review: You can find the classroom-ready slides for this week's rundown here.
NO: CNN did not describe the alleged shooter in the March 22 mass shooting at a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket as “factually Arabic, but morally white.” YES: This is a doctored image from a story in The Babylon Bee, a conservative Christian “news” satire website.
Note: Though this altered screenshot was originally published as satire, it widely circulated out of context on social media, provoking significant misdirected outrage. (Warning: The links in this note contain blurred profanity.) You can see examples of its spread on Twitter here, and on Facebook here, here, here and here.
NO: Google did not “block” or censor images of the Suez Canal on Google Earth while the Ever Given, a container ship, was stuck in the canal. YES: The water in these satellite images varies in color — from dark blue to lighter aquamarine — because Google Earth pieces together images from a variety of sources taken on different dates. NO: Google Earth does not provide live, real-time satellite imagery and could not have censored a live shot of the vessel.
Note: Believers of the QAnon conspiracy belief system used the “blocked” images to push the absurd claim that the Ever Given, operated by the Evergreen company, was carrying abducted children in an international sex trafficking scheme involving Hillary Rodham Clinton. Conspiracy theorists linked Evergreen to Clinton by pointing out that Evergreen is her Secret Service code name and falsely suggesting that the boat’s call sign, or identifier, H3RC, intentionally contains her initials.
Motivated reasoning: Looking only for things in ways that are likely to confirm what you already want to believe or think is true and that will not typically result in information that conflicts with the belief you’re trying to prove.
Illusory pattern perception: The tendency to perceive meaningful cause-and-effect patterns and other connections between unrelated events. Also known as “patternicity,” illusory pattern perception is often used as evidence to support a belief.
NO: Georgia’s new voting law, Senate Bill 202, does not allow beverages other than water to be handed out to voters waiting in line at polling places. YES: The law prohibits giving “food and drink” — no exceptions are listed — “within 25 feet of any voter standing in line to vote at any polling place.”
Note: The author of this post later added the phrase “just joke” at the top, after the false loophole claim spread widely on social media.
NO: Some 3,964 people in Europe have not died from adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccines. YES: The figures in this misleading headline are missing necessary context and have not been investigated or verified by scientists. YES: They are raw, unconfirmed numbers from EudraVigilance, a publicly accessible European Union database that compiles suspected side effects and other health problems that are “not necessarily related to or caused by” the vaccine. NO: The data do not show whether the adverse reactions were caused by the vaccine or occurred coincidentally. YES: Anti-vaccination activists routinely exaggerate the dangers of vaccines by misinterpreting and misusing data from EudraVigilance and from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a U.S. government database that allows anyone to self-report “possible side effects or health problems” experienced after a vaccine, even minor ones such as soreness at the injection site.
Note: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about two to five people per million who receive a COVID-19 vaccine experience anaphylaxis, a rare severe allergic reaction that can be effectively treated. The CDC thus far has no proof directly linking vaccines to anyone’s death.
Q: How do you consistently keep yourself unbiased? (Robert, 12th grade, New Jersey)
A: We all have biases, including journalists. Personal backgrounds and life experiences — as well as factors like race, ethnicity and gender — shape how we see the world. Newsrooms have standards that work to make their straight news reporting as accurate, fair and impartial as possible. (Opinion pieces, by contrast, do not aim to be free of bias and typically show a specific point of view. Asking, “Is this news or opinion?” is a crucial step when thinking about bias!).
It is important to note that on any given story, standards-based journalists do not work alone. For example, one journalist may report and write a story, but the story is then typically reviewed by at least one to two (or more!) editors in a newsroom. Each of these journalists comes to a story with their own background and set of blind spots and biases, but they follow the standards and ethics of quality journalism and work together to minimize any influence these biases may have on news reports. Sometimes, especially during breaking news events, having to work under deadline pressure to get accurate information as quickly as possible does not give journalists much time to consider their personal feelings toward a story. That said, journalists may have blind spots that cause them to fall short at times, which can be reflected in the stories that do get covered as well as those that don’t. This is one reason having a diverse newsroom is so important.
Thanks, Robert, for your thoughtful question! Did we miss anything? Feel free to tweet us at @NewsLitProject or email us at [email protected] so we can continue the conversation.
What should we tackle next? Submit questions using this link, and you may see them answered in upcoming issues of The Sift!
Discuss: Have you ever encountered a news report that you thought was “biased”? What made you think it was biased? Why is it important to consider whether a piece is opinion or straight news before claiming it is “biased”? How would having a newsroom with diverse perspectives and backgrounds help minimize bias? Should journalists reporting straight news disclose their biases or should they keep their personal views private? Can we ever be aware of all of our biases?
Idea: Ask students to reflect on their own biases in a journal entry or “free write” activity. Have them consider how their personal background, geographic location, life experiences and other factors shape how they see the world. Why is it important to recognize these biases as news consumers? How might these biases affect perceptions of news reports and opinion pieces?
The Washington Post rescinded a policy banning one of its reporters — who has been open about her experience of sexual assault — from covering stories related to sexual misconduct. The March 29 decision came after reporter Felicia Sonmez detailed and criticized the ban in several tweets, and described how she had “pleaded with the editors to lift it, to no avail.” As Farhi reports, it is “unusual, if not unheard of, for a reporter to be banned from writing about a subject with which she is personally familiar or which involves the reporter’s background.”
Note: Sonmez was suspended from the Post in January 2020 after she tweeted about the sexual assault allegation against Kobe Bryant hours after his Jan. 26 death in a helicopter crash. Two days after she tweeted, the Post’s leadership reinstated Sonmez, concluding that she did not violate the newsroom’s social media policy.
Discuss: Do you agree with the Post’s decision to lift its ban preventing Sonmez from covering sexual assault? Why or why not? If a journalist has personally experienced a crime, such as sexual assault, does that compromise their ability to cover similar crimes fairly and accurately? Should they disclose their experience to their employer? If you were the leader of a newsroom, what kind of policies would you adopt to address such issues?
Discuss: How can social media lead people to false anti-vaccination content? How common is vaccine misinformation on social media? Why are anti-vaccination posts and stories often more compelling than accurate, fact-based scientific information? Does vaccine misinformation cause real-world harm? Is spreading doubt about a safe, effective and life-saving vaccine unethical? Do you think most people are aware that engaging with misinformation on Facebook and Instagram — even by commenting on it with a warning that it’s false — can cause their algorithms to promote it to even more people? Should Facebook (which also owns Instagram) address this?
Idea: Divide students into groups and charge them with developing an effective social media moderation policy for anti-vaccination posts. How would the policy handle provably false claims about the COVID-19 vaccines? What could it do about other kinds of posts, such as personal anecdotes, jokes and opinions that spread unsubstantiated doubt about the vaccines?
Discuss: The central finding of this report is that just 12 people (and their organizations) were responsible for almost two-thirds of the anti-vaccine misinformation that circulated on social media in recent weeks (from Feb. 1 to March 16). Based on this report, what insights can you draw about the problem of medical misinformation and the ways social media platforms can fight its spread?
Discuss: Have you ever encountered health misinformation online? Do misleading claims ever target a specific group, such as young people? Where do you go to find health-related information? How can you make sure this information is credible?
Idea: Share this story with students, then ask them to form groups and develop their own idea for an anti-misinformation project. What particular type of misinformation would they work to address? Why? What kind of project or initiative would be most effective in combating it?