A new reportfrom the Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor project underscores the widespread nature of pandemic misinformation. Researchers polled American adults about eight common vaccine falsehoods and found that 78% have heard at least one of them, and either believe it to be true or are uncertain whether it is true or false. The study also found that false beliefs about COVID-19 are “correlated with both vaccination status and partisanship,” and that the share of people who hold four or more COVID-19 misconceptions is greatest among those who trust overtly partisan media outlets such as Newsmax and One America News (see graphic above). The study also points out, however, that it is unclear if these news sources cause the false beliefs or if they simply attract people who “are pre-disposed to believe certain types of misinformation.”
Discuss: Why do you think COVID-19 misinformation is so widespread? What are some ways that you can combat this misinformation? What are your most trusted sources for news about COVID-19? How can you make sure that information shared by these news sources is reliable and accurate?
Sports-related news is edging out political coverage in Americans’ news diets — a big change from a year ago. Sports news, particularly NFL coverage, dominated the top 10 news topics in October 2021, according to page view data pulled from 1,400 news websites by the content recommendation company Taboola. By contrast, data shows many of the nation’s top stories a year ago were related to hard news topics, such as “Trump,” “Biden,” “George Floyd” and “White House.”
Discuss: Why do you think Americans are tuning into more sports news and less political news than a year ago? Why is it important to stay informed about different kinds of topics and current events? What does a healthy and balanced news diet look like?
Idea: Ask students to keep a reflection log of their news consumption habits for a week. What news topics are in their reflection log? What were the most common topics? The least common? Why? Do they notice any gaps in their news diet? How could they diversify their news diet (in terms of news topics, news sources, etc.)?
Dig Deeper: Use this think sheet to help students examine the recent controversy over Aaron Rodgers’ vaccination status as they reflect on what sources the public should consult for COVID-19 vaccine information.
Phrases like “off the record” and “on background” are common in journalism, but what do they mean? Poynter’s Tom Jones explains the differences between these two types of journalist-source agreements, noting that off-the-record information should “remain strictly between the source and the reporter,” while information given “on background” can be used in reporting as long as journalists do “not attribute that information to a specific or named person.” (Instead, journalists sometimes use a general descriptor, such as “company spokesperson,” to attribute information shared on background.)
Idea: The Verge recently updated its ethics policy with guidelines related to sourcing. Read The Verge’s sourcing standards outlined at the end of this piece. Why are these kinds of guidelines important? How might they impact reader trust? According to this piece, why do companies sometimes abuse sharing information “on background?” Why is getting information “on the record” a priority at standards-based news organizations? Why is it important to attribute information clearly to sources?
NO: This COVID-19 clinic sign is not authentic. YES: The text in the white box has been doctored. NO: The sign is not from a vaccine clinic for children. YES: The sign — which actually indicated in Spanish inside the white box that COVID-19 vaccines were available without an appointment — was displayed at a vaccine clinic hosted at a New England Patriots training camp last summer.
An authentic photo of the COVID-19 vaccination clinic hosted at a New England Patriots training camp in Foxborough, Massachusetts, last summer. The sign appears in a number of videos shot at the event, including this news report (at 30 seconds) from CBS Boston.
NewsLit takeaway: Text on signs is easy to alter with photo manipulation software and is a common target of bad actors online. In this case, the photo was also presented in a false context, circulating online shortly after the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. Be wary of anti-vaccine rhetoric that seeks to propagate fear about the safety of the vaccine for kids, which is expected to surge as the vaccine rollout among children progresses.
NO: Twenty-three people were not trampled to death at a Michael Jackson concert. NO: There is no evidence anyone ever died at one of Jackson’s concerts. YES: More than 1,500 people were injured — 40 of whom were hospitalized — at one of Jackson’s concerts in Liverpool, England, in 1988. YES: Fainting was common at Jackson concerts. YES: One Jackson expert told USA Today that the artist’s team implemented crowd control measures in the 1990s to prevent serious audience injuries.
NewsLit takeaway: Evidence-free claims tied to controversial current events are always suspect and should not be shared until they’ve been verified — especially when they include a red-flag phrase such as, “let that sink in.” This is just one of several false claims that circulated in the wake of the fatal crowd surge during Travis Scott’s performance at the 2021 Astroworld music festival in Houston. Some sought to shift blame away from Scott, while others tried to use the deaths to push COVID-19 misinformation and other falsehoods. According to Snopes, this particular rumor about Jackson has appeared on clickbait websites since at least 2019.
NO: The video in this tweet — which purports to show an unruly passenger on a flight demanding a seat change because another passenger refused to produce vaccine documentation — is not authentic. YES: It is a short fictional film titled Covid Flight in which the passenger is eventually asked to leave by a pilot who also says, “There will be no discrimination on my aircraft … vaccinated or unvaccinated, we should respect each other.” YES: A clip from Covid Flight also went viral out of context on TikTok where one post garnered more than 35 million views and 4.5 million likes. YES: The film was produced by a social influencer named Richard Williams, who has a history of creating realistic videos that are “designed to go viral” and often are published without disclosures that they’ve been staged.
NewsLit takeaway: The pandemic has prompted a spate of real incidents involving conflict over COVID-19 safety protocols on airlines, and raw cellphone videos of unruly passengers often circulate on social media — so it’s not surprising that many people who encounter this video might initially believe it’s authentic. This vignette also resonated with people who are resistant to COVID-19 vaccine mandates and safety protocols because it caricatured the “passenger’s” concerns about her unvaccinated seatmate and framed her request for a new seat as “discrimination.” Staged videos that aren’t clearly labeled as fiction have become an “engagement bait” trend on TikTok — and one company has gone so far as to create “fictional influencers.”
Discuss: Is it unethical to publish video of a staged skit to social media without clear labels disclosing that it’s not real? What types of emotions and biases might be inflamed by this video? Does it matter if people believe that this situation is real? Why or why not?
You can find this week's rumor examples to use with students in these slides.
The Maryland-D.C.-Delaware Press Association posthumously removed the former owner and editor of the Worcester Democrat newspaper from its Hall of Fame after a university student found editorials that were “viciously racist” through research for the "Printing Hate" project, which examines white-owned newspapers' history of stoking violence and inciting lynchings of Black Americans.
Fact-checks work — and two researchers argue that if Facebook really cared about battling misinformation, it would actively put fact-checks in front of people who have seen false posts.