The Sift: Trust in news | Ohio pollution rumors | Empathetic reporting


Teach news literacy this week
Trust in news | Ohio pollution rumors | Empathetic reporting

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A larger share of Americans believe local news organizations care more about the impact of their reporting than national news organizations, according to a Knight Foundation and Gallup survey conducted May 31 to July 21, 2022. (Gallup and Knight Foundation)

Half of Americans believe most national news organizations intend to “mislead, misinform, or persuade the public,” according to a new Gallup and Knight Foundation report on trust in news. Notably, the percentage of Americans with high “emotional trust” in local news organizations (44%) was significantly higher than trust in national news organizations (21%). The report noted that “emotional trust in news is driven by the belief that news organizations care, report with honest intentions and are reliable.”

classroom-ready icon Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to take notes on what fuels trust and distrust in news media.

Generative artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT can not only be used to produce an essay on The Great Gatsby — they can also be used to produce mis- and disinformation quickly and at scale. New tools are already being created to slow the spread of falsehoods, including one by NewsGuard that trains AI services to prevent misinformation from spreading and another by ChatGPT creator OpenAI that helps educators determine whether a text was written by a human or a bot. AI technology is evolving rapidly, and some say its effects on humanity may be bigger than the internet itself.

AI services can even appear sentient, as Kevin Roose, technology columnist at The New York Times, learned when Bing’s ChatBot declared love for him in a conversation that unsettled him.


Interviewing sources after a tragedy is a difficult but standard practice in most newsrooms — but one local news reporter and Michigan State University alumna didn’t approach any students for comment in the aftermath of a Feb. 13 on-campus mass shooting that left three students dead. Instead, she stood on campus with a sign propped on a tripod that said, “This is hard. If you want to talk, we are here to listen.” Two people walking by stopped to be interviewed and the resulting story was lauded by some viewers for its compassion and sensitivity.

In contrast, an MSU spokesperson told the university’s student newspaper that some students had “a bad experience with some members of the press” who weren’t as empathetic toward students. As they returned to campus, students were provided with digital and paper “No Media” signs to show the press if they didn’t want to engage.

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You can find this week's rumor examples to use with students in these slides.

Altered photos create wrong impression of Biden’s trip to Ukraine and Poland

Two tweets include images of U.S. President Joe Biden — one that appears to show him eating ice cream, another that supposedly shows him holding hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — during his February 2023 trip to Ukraine and Poland. The News Literacy Project has added a label that says, “DOCTORED PHOTOS.”

NO: This is not a genuine photograph of President Joe Biden eating ice cream in Ukraine. NO: This is not a genuine photograph of Biden walking hand-in-hand with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. NO: This is not a genuine photograph of an audience member making an obscene gesture aimed at Biden during his visit to Poland. YES: All of these images were digitally altered.

NewsLit takeaway: The adage “a photograph is worth a thousand words” speaks to the efficiency with which images can convey stories. This makes manipulating them a powerful tool in the propagandist’s playbook, as altered photographs can create false narratives about their political opponents. When fake and out-of-context photos confirm people’s preconceived biases, they can quickly go viral as viewers either assume that they are genuine or reason that they might as well be true.

Sensational, outrageous or damaging photos of public figures should always be approached with skepticism — especially when they’re coming from an unknown or openly partisan source online. Using a quick reverse image search to verify the authenticity and original context of images like these can help inoculate you against these manipulative tactics.


No, George Soros did not endorse Ron DeSantis for president

A tweet from unsuccessful Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake reads, “The Kiss of Death — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Endorsed by George Soros” and includes a link to the conspiracy website The Gateway Pundit. The News Literacy Project has added a label that says, “FALSE.”

NO: Billionaire investor George Soros did not endorse Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president in 2024. YES: Soros predicted that DeSantis would beat former President Donald Trump and other Republican challengers for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. YES: Soros said he was hopeful that a DeSantis nomination would lead to Trump running as a third-party candidate and would result in a Democratic landslide.

NewsLit takeaway: The tendency for people to only read headlines amid the constant flood of social media posts allows bad actors to distort the facts to suit their political or ideological agendas, as this example shows. News consumers can avoid being duped by these bad faith takes by reading past headlines and seeking out reporting on viral claims from a variety of reputable sources.

Readers should also consider a poster’s motivations. In this case, the false claim that Soros had endorsed DeSantis was widely being spread by political partisans hoping to damage DeSantis and benefit Trump by aligning DeSantis with Soros, a well-known liberal donor.


Out-of-context photos of dead birds go viral after Ohio train derailment

A February 2023 Facebook post reads, “Maybe we should be concerned with what’s going on in Ohio. These birds dropped de@d in Ky” and features a photo of several dead birds on a street. The News Literacy Project has added a label that says, “PHOTO FROM 2018.”

NO: This photo was not taken in the aftermath of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern freight train derailment that spilled hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio. YES: This is an authentic photo of birds that died in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2018 after likely eating fermented berries.

NewsLit takeaway: Readers should be aware that photos and videos of dead birds have been used for years to stir up conspiratorial and apocalyptic fears. But these images tend to have simple scientific explanations; birds died after accidentally striking the ground as they attempted to evade a predator, or were struck by a sudden downward thrust of air called a microburst. Conspiracists and misinformation opportunists attempt to connect this type of imagery to current events, without legitimate proof. It is important for readers to look for evidence (or a lack thereof) when encountering these claims and to consider other possible explanations. A reverse image search is a particularly useful tool to quickly identify the origins of online images.

The defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox has laid bare the extent to which some on-air Fox News personalities and executives at the network knew the claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election that they were amplifying publicly were baseless. (And although it’s a major media story, Fox News has decided it’s best not to cover it.)
What role should “harm play in determining what and how to cover certain things” in the news? This NPR segment recaps the effects of two open letters alleging that The New York Times’ coverage of transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people is not just biased, but harmful.
Local TV news reporter Dylan Lyons was fatally shot on Feb. 22 while covering a shooting in Pine Hills, Florida. His death served as a reminder to American journalists of the dangers of covering daily gun violence.
The stunning portraits on Jos Avery’s Instagram page brought the photographer a large following — then he admitted that the people weren’t real; they’re retouched AI-generated images.
BBC got duped by a parody account on Twitter posing as actor Will Ferrell. How? With a paid-for blue check mark that made the account seem legit at a glance.
Typo? Embarrassing words? There’s an array of reasons why politicians delete tweets, and until recently those tweets were tracked by Politwoops, which is shutting down due to changes made by Twitter.
Women in public roles are targeted more than men in disinformation campaigns, which can even lead to national security threats, according to a new study.
Teen social media usage is an important area of research — but many studies base their findings on the habits of white teens and college students, overlooking the experiences of marginalized teens.
ICYMI: In case you missed it, the most clicked story link in the last issue of The Sift was this piece on proposed social media bans for teens and children under 16.
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Thanks for reading!

Your weekly issue of The Sift is created by Susan Minichiello (@susanmini), Dan Evon (@danieljevon), Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams), Hannah Covington (@HannahCov) and Pamela Brunskill (@PamelaBrunskill). It is edited by Mary Kane (@marykkane) and Lourdes Venard (@lourdesvenard).

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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