The Sift: ‘Sesame Street’ pandemic coverage | Bogus Morgan Freeman quote | ‘Freedom Convoy’ fakes


Teach news literacy this week
'Sesame Street' pandemic coverage | Bogus Morgan Freeman quote | 'Freedom Convoy' fakes

classroom-ready icon Dig deeper: Don’t miss this week’s classroom-ready resource.

Top picks

Vaccine deniers are embracing Robert Malone, an infectious disease researcher who pushes widely discredited claims about COVID-19 vaccines, as a credentialed voice who affirms their distrust of the overwhelming scientific consensus about the pandemic. Malone — who in the late 1980s made a discovery that contributed to research on mRNA vaccines — was catapulted into the public eye after he was featured on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast in December.
classroom-ready icon Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to further explore the impact Malone has had on misinformation about COVID-19 and the mRNA vaccines.
Russia has been pushing disinformation about Ukraine since 2014, but American intelligence officials and other experts told The New York Times that they’ve seen an increase in false propaganda narratives in recent months. Russia is also trying to use information influence operations to exacerbate social divisions in Ukraine — similar to its efforts to polarize American voters in 2016.
Children’s media and news programs have faced a tough task in covering the pandemic and explaining it to a young audience. But they’ve done so with “a level of clarity and directness in their pandemic coverage that can be hard to find” in news sources for more adult audiences, writes Kate Cray of The Atlantic. Sesame Street, for instance, teamed up with CNN to tackle COVID-19 vaccine questions after officials recommended the shot for children ages 5 to 11. Kids’ media, Cray notes, shines for being straightforward, offering ample context and answering questions authentic to its audience.
  • Idea: Examine several of the kids’ news stories and segments cited in The Atlantic piece. How do they approach the news? Compare these stories to news coverage for older audiences. Consider factors such as word choice, context and tone. How does kids’ news take into account “children’s specific news needs"? Does this coverage still aspire to journalism standards?
  • Another idea: Ask students to find a recent news report on an issue they care about. How would they repackage or rework this coverage for younger audiences?

Viral rumor rundown

Morgan Freeman never told people to “stop taking tests” for COVID-19

A Facebook post of a meme that includes a photo of actor Morgan Freeman and the words “Stop taking tests and live your life. If you’re sick, stay home. If you feel fine, go about your business. This has been the system that worked for all of human history until the last two years. Time to go back to it.” The News Literacy Project added a label that says “FALSE ATTRIBUTION.”

NO: Actor Morgan Freeman did not say that people should “stop taking tests” for COVID-19 and simply stay home if they don’t feel well, as this meme suggests. YES: This quote comes from a Jan. 4 tweet posted by conservative political commentator Matt Walsh. NO: This is not reliable medical advice. YES: People who have COVID-19 can be asymptomatic and “feel fine,” but still infect others.

NewsLit takeaway: Falsely attributing political messages to popular celebrities is a common tactic used by peddlers of disinformation to help their messages gain wider acceptance and reach. When you see a controversial message of any kind attributed to — or associated with — any celebrity, always proceed with caution, and be especially wary of claims involving well-liked figures with broad appeal.


No, this “amazing” perpetual motion sculpture isn’t real

A tweet featuring a video of what appears to be a kinetic sculpture of a pair of upraised, rotating hands perfectly timed to pass through holes in a large, swinging pendulum. The News Literacy Project added a label that says, “DIGITAL ARTWORK.”

NO: The “sculpture” in this video is not real. YES: It is a 3D animation created by the digital artist Andreas Wannerstedt, who is known for creating perfectly synchronized animations. YES: Engagement bait accounts — or accounts that share “amazing” content optimized to go viral — frequently share digital art out of context. YES: Other pieces of Wannerstedt’s digital art have also been presented out of context by similar accounts.

NewsLit takeaway: Photos and video purporting to capture “amazing” aspects of the natural world — everything from supposedly cute or unusual animals and stunning (but fake) space photos to incredible (and non-existent) geological formations and feats of physics — often go viral. After all, how tempting is it to “like” a video of fast tortoises or other seemingly incredible aspects of nature? But be aware that these types of photos and videos are commonly used as “engagement bait” by accounts seeking to build up large social media followings at all costs, even when it means passing off digital fakes as genuine.

You can find this week's rumor examples to use with students in these slides.
Recent protests in Mexico are calling attention to mounting violence against journalists in the country, with three media workers killed in less than a month. Mexico is one of the deadliest countries in the world for the press.
A spate of false rumors concerning the size and popularity of the Canadian “Freedom Convoy” trucker protest against government vaccination mandates has been circulating online since mid-January and includes a number of videos presented in false contexts.
Can satire be an effective debunking strategy? NBA legend John Stockton was ridiculed by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert after he repeated a baseless viral falsehood about vaccinated athletes “dropping dead” during play.
People have “a human right” to accurate information about the pandemic “based on scientific data and not fake news,” Pope Francis said on Jan. 28. He also called for journalists and scientists to reach out to those who have been misled by false information and treat them with respect.
Does America have a “hyperbole habit”? Columnist Damon Linker thinks so — and argues that this tendency toward constant alarm and panic is “exhausting, numbing, and radicalizing us.”
The pandemic’s disruption of schools has prompted The Associated Press to kick off a two-year initiative to partner with local newsrooms to “deepen” education coverage.

Thanks for reading!

Your weekly issue of The Sift is created by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams), Hannah Covington (@HannahCov) and Pamela Brunskill (@PamelaBrunskill), and edited by Mary Kane (@marykkane).

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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.