NLP offers new, urgently needed lesson on conspiratorial thinking

As recent events have demonstrated, false conspiracy theories online can fuel dangerous actions in real life.  In this context, NLP is introducing a new lesson to educate students and the public about how conspiratorial thinking develops and its effects.

The comprehensive “Conspiratorial Thinking” lesson, included with NLP’s free Checkology® e-learning platform, seeks to help people understand the factors that allow conspiratorial thinking to take hold and conspiracy theories to flourish. It is available to educators and the general public.

You can preview the lesson here. For the best experience, register here to explore this and all Checkology lessons.

“The need to educate about conspiracy theories and why people believe them cannot be understated,” said John Silva, NLP’s senior director of education and training. “This is why we developed a lesson to teach young people about conspiratorial thinking and how it leads to a breakdown of critical, rational thought and belief becoming more important than facts. We must address the warning signs of cognitive dissonance and motivated reasoning — the thought processes that make us seek any information to support a belief.”

Renée DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory who investigates the spread of false narratives across social networks and assists policymakers in understanding and responding to them, hosts the lesson.

The new lesson teaches people to understand key components of conspiratorial thinking, including:

  • What a conspiracy theory is and what separates it from other kinds of misinformation.
  • How it can be captivating despite a lack of evidence to support it.
  • The real-world consequences and the political and social impact of conspiracy theories.

“More importantly, added Silva, “people will learn how to recognize forms of cognitive biases that make false information seem true and how to evaluate sources and accept information as true only if it is verifiable and credible.”

“Conspiratorial Thinking” is the 14th lesson in NLP’s browser-based platform, which teaches students how to navigate the digital landscape by developing news literacy knowledge, skills and habits of mind.

Upon Reflection: Media needs to get COVID-19 vaccine story right

The media needs to be discerning about the vaccination-related events it reports, and how it does so, and avoid sensationalizing such incidents.

When it comes to reporting on the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, context is everything.

As millions of doses are injected into the arms of people around the world, adverse events are inevitable, even under the best of circumstances.

A small percentage of the population will have allergic reactions. Because the two vaccines now in use in the United States (from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) are highly, but not completely, effective, some recipients may become infected with the virus. And some people who have been vaccinated will get sick — or even die — from unrelated, if coincidental, causes.

The media needs to be discerning about the vaccination-related events it reports, and how it does so. Above all, it must avoid sensationalizing such incidents, whether in news reports or on social media.

Read the full commentary on Poynter.org

NLP, Scripps team up for National News Literacy Week 2021

illustration of people leaning on an iPhone that says "news feed"With information – and misinformation – surging around recent national events, the News Literacy Project and The E.W. Scripps Company are teaming up for National News Literacy Week 2021, which begins with a national public awareness campaign to promote news literacy and the role of a free press in American democracy.

This second annual National News Literacy Week (Jan. 25-29) aims to promote news literacy as a fundamental life skill and to provide the public with the tools needed to be an informed and empowered populace.

The public service announcement, an animated video that challenges people to test their “news literacy fitness” and to resolve to be healthier news consumers, will run in both Spanish and English across Scripps’ social, digital and broadcast channels including its 60 local broadcast television stations; national networks Newsy, Court TV, Bounce, Laff, Grit and Court TV Mystery; and promotions from the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Simplemost and Triton Digital.

Media partners large and small are offering pro bono ad space to further amplify the campaign’s message: The Associated Press, BuzzFeed News, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Pro Publica, Vox Media, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and members of the Local Media Association and Local Media Consortium are among the organizations committing space to the effort.

Engagement with students, educators, public

The News Literacy Project (NLP) will engage educators, students and the public throughout the week with quizzes, tips and tools featured through its social media channels and on the NewsLiteracyWeek.org landing page. A national professional development event, NewsLitCamp®, will be held on Jan. 26 in partnership with CNN, as well as a #NewsLiteracyWeek Twitter chat on Jan. 25 at 3 p.m. ET and an edWeb session on conspiratorial thinking with NLP’s education team on Jan. 27 at 4 p.m. ET. NLP will also formally launch its NewsLit Nation educator network, which will support local ambassadors advocating for news literacy to be taught in their local schools.

Consequences for democracy

“In today’s complex information and media ecosystem, the proliferation of rumors, lies and the deliberate spread of misinformation has devastating consequences for our democracy,” said Scripps President and CEO Adam Symson. “At the same time, it’s harder than ever to distinguish verified facts and objective journalism from opinion, propaganda and even total fiction. It is our urgent responsibility – as friends, coworkers, teachers, parents and fellow citizens – to equip ourselves and younger generations with the tools necessary to discern truth from misinformation. With our partners at the News Literacy Project, Scripps is committed to bringing discussions about what it means to be news-literate into newsrooms, classrooms and living rooms across the country to empower the public to be stronger news consumers.”

“The corrosive threat of misinformation now permeates every aspect of our civic life,” said Alan C. Miller, founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project. “We’ve seen it surge in the past year around the global pandemic, racial justice protests and during the presidential election. As the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol demonstrated, this contagion of viral rumors and conspiracy theories can have deadly consequences. It’s time to confront this rising tide that threatens our democracy. Together, we must take personal responsibility for the news and other information we consume and share to assure a future founded on facts.”

During National News Literacy Week 2021, Scripps’ news teams will premiere stories related to the topic of news literacy on-air and online across Scripps’ platforms, with a selection available at the campaign landing page, NewsLiteracyWeek.org.

National News Literacy Week 2021: How to get involved

The public can get involved with National News Literacy Week, Jan. 25-29, in a number of ways:

  • Visit NewsLiteracyWeek.org to test your “news literacy fitness” and take the pledge to be news-literate.
  • Watch NLP’s new Checkology® virtual classroom lesson “Conspiratorial Thinking” to learn how and why conspiracy theories develop and how to prevent people from falling for them.
  • Join the conversation on social media at #NewsLiteracyWeek.

National News Literacy Week is part of an ongoing partnership between Scripps and NLP to advance awareness of news literacy.

 

Our statement on the assault on the Capitol

We deplore the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol today by a lawless mob. While we support the right to peaceful assembly and free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment, this was an anti-democratic attempt to prevent the culmination of a free and fair election.

The attack on the Congress — and the post-election events leading up to it — underscore the need for robust civics education that gives people a basic understanding of the Constitution and the fundamental principles of democracy. We call on the new Congress to appropriate funds now to achieve this goal and to protect our democracy. This must include funding for news literacy, which empowers people to discern credible information from misinformation and gives them the tools to be equal, informed and engaged participants in the country’s civic life.

Such an education is essential to bridging the deep partisan divide and alternative realities that have driven our democracy to such a dangerous place.

Upon Reflection: Journalism’s real ‘fake news’ also reflects its accountability

Note: This column is a periodic series of personal reflections on journalism, news literacy, education and related topics by NLP’s founder and CEO, Alan C. Miller. Columns are posted here at 10 a.m. ET every other Thursday — though there will be no column on Dec. 31 (New Year’s Eve). Publication will resume on Jan. 7.

On Sept. 28, 1980, during the height of the drug epidemic in the nation’s capital, The Washington Post published a heart-rending profile of “Jimmy,” an 8-year-old heroin addict. It caused a national sensation.

Police and social workers launched a massive search for the boy, whose identity the paper refused to disclose. The following April, the reporter, Janet Cooke, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest honor, for feature writing.

But her story was a lie. The boy was never found, and Cooke ultimately acknowledged that she had invented him. The Pulitzer committee withdrew the award — for the first time in the history of the prizes — and the Post published a voluminous report on its failure to catch the fabrication. Cooke resigned; her promising journalism career abruptly ended.

In the four subsequent decades, there have been other high-profile cases where journalists working for reputable news organizations made things up. They include fabulists whose names are synonymous with the cardinal sin of their craft Stephen Glass (PDF) of The New Republic, Jayson Blair of The New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today. More recently, NBC News’ Brian Williams was found to have embellished accounts of his derring-do as a reporter.

The consequences of these self-inflicted wounds were enormous not just for the perpetrators, but also for their news organizations. But the greatest damage was to the public’s trust in journalism. Cooke’s case, less than a decade after the Post’s triumphant Watergate reporting, first weakened that bond. The transgressions of Glass, Blair, Kelley and Williams further eroded it.

Nonetheless, as counterintuitive as it might sound, these iconic cases can, in fact, be viewed as a reason to trust journalism.

For one thing, there have been relatively few such scandals in the four decades since “Jimmy’s World” was published. For another, the news organizations took responsibility, acknowledged the damage, and published exhaustive investigations into how these lapses happened. Some of these breaches led to systemic institutional changes. And Cooke, Glass, Blair and Kelley have not worked in journalism again (we’ll return to Williams below).

Before and during his time as president, Donald Trump has insisted that critical news coverage is “fake news” and accused those who cover him of making things up, even as he has misled the public on a variety of topics — from silly ones (the size of the crowd at his inauguration) to matters with implications for public health (the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic) and for democracy itself (the outcome of last month’s presidential election).

Yes, there have been rare ethical lapses; I note a few below. But in contrast to the many purposely deceptive websites and some viral user-generated content on social media platforms — produced with no rigor, standards, accountability or transparency — quality journalists and news outlets do not make things up. Period.

To be sure, journalism is imperfect by its nature. Journalists make mistakes for a variety of reasons: the rush of deadlines, competitive pressure, sources who mislead or outright lie, honest errors. The truth often takes time to emerge. There is a reason that journalism is called “the first rough draft of history.”

Beyond the fabulists, there have been other high-profile, and even more damaging, cases, where news organizations retracted major stories that involved serious lapses in the vetting of sources and documents or deeply flawed reporting and editing. Glaring examples include CNN’s 1998 report on Operation Tailwind, charging that the U.S. military had used sarin, a deadly nerve gas, against American defectors during the Vietnam War, and a 2014 piece in Rolling Stone detailing an alleged rape at the University of Virginia.

In 2004, The New York Times produced a post-mortem of its Iraq reporting that was highly critical of its own credulous accounts of the existence of weapons of mass destruction — weapons that failed to materialize in Iraq and helped lead the U.S. into a prolonged and costly war. That same year, CBS News acknowledged that it was “a mistake” to have based a report about George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard on memos that it could not prove were authentic.

But here, too, internal inquiries followed, and careers — including those of prominent correspondents and senior news executives — were dashed or diminished.

In addition, many news organizations, including digital-only outlets like Vox and Axios, routinely publish corrections of factual errors, down to the misspelling of a name or an erroneous date. Some have ombudsman or a readers’ representative who responds to issues of accuracy and ethics. Many journalism organizations also have ethics codes (here, for example, is the Society of Professional Journalists’). This reflects the fact that reputable news organizations have standards; when those standards are violated, corrections and consequences follow — or at least they should.

You might ask yourself this question about any source of information that you trust: When was the last time it issued a correction?

I know something about this subject after 29 years as a newspaper reporter, most of them spent in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times. I participated in the meticulous reporting, editing and vetting process that my colleagues and I brought to our work. This included high-stakes investigations involving the political campaigns and administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the U.S. Marine Corps and U-Haul. I sweated every word and every fact right up until the presses ran. My handful of corrections, most of them minor, sting to this day.

Admittedly, not all journalism transgressions and transgressors are created or treated equally.

Brian Williams shared false accounts of his reporting — both on the air and in interviews on late-night talk shows — when he was one of the most trusted names in journalism as the anchor of the NBC Nightly News. When these fabrications were disclosed in 2015, he was suspended for six months without pay. He returned to the air in September 2015 as a breaking news anchor on MSNBC; a year later, he was named the host of a newly created late-night news wrap-up on the cable network, The 11th Hour with Brian Williams a position he still holds.

Janet Cooke, the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer (before she lost it), is about to make a comeback of sorts as well: A Netflix film based on her story is in the works.

Jayson Blair, whose serial deceptions at The New York Times exposed shortcomings in internal safeguards at the paper and helped lead to the resignation of its two top editors in 2003, has had no such revival. “I still love journalism. I miss it,” he told students at Duke University in 2016. But, he added, “it just doesn’t work without the trust.”

Read more in this series:

Delivering news literacy to journalism students, remotely

When the Houston Independent School District started the 2020-21 school year with 100% remote learning, journalism educator David Fanucchi needed to find an engaging way to teach news literacy to his students at Margaret Long Wisdom High School.

A colleague at Houston’s Bellaire High School, Andrea Negri, suggested NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom. The browser based, e-learning platform with interactive lessons that students can do independently was exactly what Fanucchi was looking for.

“I thought Checkology provided a fantastic way for students to complete some relevant online lessons about journalism at a time when it is so difficult to keep their attention remotely,” Fanucchi says. “Teachers are struggling to find tools like that to use, and I was just so excited that these easy-to-understand modules were created and that I could use them in my classes.”

He assigned all seven of his classes the Checkology 101 course, which explores essential news literacy topics through the lessons “InfoZones,” “The First Amendment,” “Democracy’s Watchdog,” “Practicing Quality Journalism,” “Understanding Bias” and “Misinformation.” The course also includes related activities, such as source detection and evidence evaluation “missions” to reinforce the lessons.

“We went through them all in about three weeks (a total of six or seven class periods that each lasts about 90 minutes),” Fanucchi explains. “This was all done virtually on their own laptops.”

A deepened understanding

Dulce Macha, a sophomore in one of Fanucchi’s journalism classes, had a basic understanding of news literacy before she began using Checkology. “What I had known about news literacy was that it helps you judge the reliability and credibility of information given,” she says.

But the lessons deepened her knowledge. “The most surprising thing that I learned during the course was that there are many steps that go into a journalist’s work, such as checking for credibility and staying away from bias,” Macha says.

Fanucchi found the “Practicing Quality Journalism” lesson particularly valuable to his student journalists. “It taught them a real-life scenario of being a news reporter and covering the scene of a car crash. I think it did a phenomenal job of giving the students a real feeling of what a journalist does to ensure accuracy in his/her reporting,” he says.

Macha enjoyed that assignment and how Checkology enabled her to illustrate what she learned in different ways. “What I liked about the lessons was that they had areas where we had to choose the right answer and also areas where we had to be in the journalist’s shoes, and write our opinions on it,” she says.

‘Extremely important during these times’

Fanucchi says students need help understanding how credible journalism works and identifying reliable sources and fact-based information. “It is extremely important during these times of so much chaos in the news business. Students are having a harder time every day figuring out what the truth is,” he says.

Since studying news literacy, Macha is having an easier time doing just that. “It has changed the way I consume the news and judge content and sources. This course has given me a way of judging the credibility of the news that I read and judging whether it could be fake or not,” she says.

Macha has not yet needed to help friends or family members avoid being fooled by misinformation, but she is prepared to do so. “If there was a point where something like that happened, I would certainly help them out and talk to them about the ways they should judge the credibility and reliability of the information given,” she says.

Upon Reflection: Combating America’s alternative realities before it is too late

Note: This column is a periodic series of personal reflections on journalism, news literacy, education and related topics by NLP’s founder and CEO, Alan C. Miller. Columns are posted here at 10 a.m. ET every other Thursday — though there will be no column on Dec. 31 (New Year’s Eve). Publication will resume on Jan. 7.

Donald Trump’s presidency began with the concept of alternative facts. It is ending with a country divided by alternative realities.

In the intervening years, the fault lines in America have deepened. They are defined by demographics and geography and partisanship. But they are driven by all of the information, including news, that we consume, share and act on.

When I was a reporter, journalists would bring out the old phrase “Facts are stubborn things” as an ironic way of complaining when an inconvenient fact proved to be the undoing of what would otherwise have been a good story. Today, it is opinions that are often impervious to facts.

For many, trust in institutions, including the media, has ruptured. Facts are no longer convincing; feelings hold sway, and conspiratorial thinking has moved into the mainstream. But don’t blame Donald Trump for this. While he has exploited and accelerated this erosion of fact-based reality, it didn’t start with him.

Nor is this tendency to disregard evidence and expertise a purely partisan exercise. The anti-vaxxer movement includes many progressives; in fact, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is one of its most prominent leaders.

Yet there is no doubt that the inclination to disregard credible sources and verifiable information in favor of unproven assertion and surreal supposition has intensified since Trump became president — aided by the right-wing media echo chamber and the cauldron of toxic misinformation on social media. Consider these three stunning developments this year alone:

  • Even as a global pandemic has resulted in almost 14 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 273,000 deaths in the United States alone, many people still believe that the disease is a hoax or has been exaggerated for nefarious purposes. A nurse in South Dakota recently told CNN that some of her patients, even as they got sicker and sicker, remained convinced that the virus was fake. Their dying words, she said, were, “This can’t be happening. It’s not real.”
  • The conspiratorial delusion known as QAnon holds that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles — including prominent celebrities and Democratic politicians — are secretly running the government and engaging in child sex trafficking, and that Donald Trump is the only person who can stop them. Polls show that a growing number of Americans are open to this dangerous apocalyptic thinking, and two QAnon supporters— Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene and Colorado Republican Lauren Boebert — will be sworn in next month as members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • Trump has claimed, without producing any evidence, that he won the presidential election in a landslide and that it was stolen by Joe Biden through widescale fraud. Members of the president’s legal team — including his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani — have floated wild and baseless conspiracy theories involving living and dead Venezuelan leaders, a Canadian company that makes electronic voting machines and a computer server in Germany. Dozens of lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign in battleground states have been dismissed; Republican officials in those states have helped oversee recounts and certify the votes. Nevertheless, a Monmouth University survey found that 77% of Trump voters — that’s 56 million Americans — believe that Biden won through fraud.

It is now nearly impossible to avoid the contagion of viral rumors and corrosive mistrust. Before the election, my daughter said she heard that voting by mail “isn’t safe.” My mother said she was skeptical that Trump had really come down with COVID-19. And after the vote, my 6-year-old granddaughter said a classmate told her, “Biden cheated to win the election.” (Lyla said she set him straight.)

It’s time to confront this rising tide before it is too late. We just endured a stress test of democracy, and the guardrails held. But if we do not work together to assure a future founded on facts, we may not be as fortunate next time.

Here are some things that we can — and must — do now:

The news media: Double down on accuracy, verification, transparency and accountability. Call out lies. Avoid false balance. Be tough but fair in covering the Biden administration. Report on Trump as a political, legal and media story, but turn off your notifications of his tweets.

Cable news networks: Dial back on the partisanship and the chatter. Rachet up the reporting.

Social media companies: Consistently and vigorously enforce your community standards against hate speech and other language that incites violence and damages public health and democracy. Boot anyone who routinely violates them off your platform. Improve your algorithms to elevate credible information.

Congress: Sensibly regulate social media companies to ensure that they comply with their standards, protect consumer privacy and do not undermine democracy.

The Biden administration: Bring back the daily press briefings. Make Biden available through periodic news conferences and interviews with a wide range of outlets. Tell the truth. Do not repeat the Obama administration’s mistake of opposing the release of public information and cracking down on government leaks. Restore America’s place in the world as a leading proponent of press freedom.

The education system: Bring back civics lessons — including, as an essential component, teaching students how to separate fact from fiction and determine what information they can trust. Incorporate media literacy and news literacy programs across multiple disciplines in middle schools and high schools nationwide.

The public: Become more mindful about what you read, watch and hear; more skeptical of what you trust; and more responsible with what you share. Consume a varied news diet, and practice good information hygiene. Push back against misinformation, and reach out empathetically to those who are spreading it.

Facts: Hold on tight. You deserve at least a fighting chance. You are too important to fail.

Read more in this series:

Making civics relevant through news literacy

Scott Zwierzchowski

Scott Zwierzchowski teaches civics to students in grades 11 and 12 at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago. In September 2020, he and his colleagues implemented a short news literacy unit. Their goal is to prepare students to evaluate sources and sort fact from fiction throughout the year. NLP recently checked in with Scott to learn more about how he incorporates news literacy into his courses. Teaching is taking place in a fully remote learning environment due to the COVID-19  public health crisis.

NLP: Why did you decide to use Checkology®?

SZ: [My colleagues and I] had a conversation about the continual need to connect civics and government topics to modern day issues and debates/discussions, and thus a need for quality news literacy. After finding more out about Checkology, I was really psyched about it. Looking at how interactive Checkology was, and how it was really tailored to ease of use and quality engagement tools, we knew it would be helpful for us. In addition, the option to bring in a vetted, professional journalist into the classroom was a very intriguing option — although we ultimately did not do it for time constraints, I think we would pursue it in the future..

NLP: How did it fit in with your civics/law focus?

SZ: We try to start out the year with a unit on news literacy. Our plan has been to introduce topics of news literacy and continually refer back to them throughout each unit of study, but that is a continual process of development. My colleagues and I are working on ways, for example, for students to use the summative assignment they make throughout the year to evaluate sources they find online.

NLP: What did fully remote implementation of Checkology look like?

SZ: It looked different on different days! On some days, we would introduce the topic synchronously in our Google Meet, for about 10 to 15 minutes, then let the students loose to do the lesson on their own, and I would give feedback to the students as they completed it. On one day, we did it together by me projecting the lesson and them answering the questions on their own devices. That worked decently well, as they were already a bit familiar with that format through PearDeck.

NLP: What did students think about using the platform?

SZ: Students reported really liking the asynchronous aspect. They also reported really liking the format — they said it was easy to navigate, easy to answer questions, and was super simple to provide their ideas. They thought it was clear, and mentioned that they learned from it, and also mentioned that it wasn’t too hard, or too easy.

NLP: What kind of impact have the lessons had on your civics students?

SZ: I think our teachers on the team have seen some great improvements! As we dive into our elections unit, the students are demonstrating skills of being keenly aware of the author of the source, biases of sources, and have pointed out even logical fallacies of their peers, other teachers, and administrators.

NLP: Do you plan on using Checkology in the future?

SZ: We DEFINITELY plan on using it in the future. I’ve been recommending it to colleagues who teach the AP Government and Politics course, and others throughout our school, and how beneficial it is. Ultimately, I’d love to create more plans to bring a full, longer unit into fruition.

Check out this civics news literacy unit

Checkology teachers: assign Scott’s course to your class. Click here for instructions.

Essential question

What does it look like to be an educated information consumer?

Objectives

Students will be able to achieve mastery in the following unit content topics and skills.

Topics

  • Defining news
  • Media bias
  • Language in news
  • Commentary vs. news

Skills

  • Identify news source information
  • Analyze news sources for purpose and content
  • Evaluate news sources for bias and logical fallacies

Unit plan

Day 1: What is News?

What factors determine the newsworthiness of a story? Students learned about Checkology’s “Big Four” factors in the lesson “What is News.” They are the extent to which something is timely, interesting, important and unique.

Day 2: Understanding Bias

Students completed the Checkology lesson. Then, they examined three news stories in groups and analyzed the types and forms of bias that they may have detected in the stories.

Days 3 and 4: The Power of Language with Checkology’s “Arguments and Evidence” lesson

On day 3, students completed “Arguments and Evidence” asynchronously. Then, together in class on day 4, students debriefed on the lesson and further practiced together remotely using the “Spot the Logical Fallacy” exercise from Checkology.

Day 5: Fact-checking in the digital age

Students supplemented Scott’s fact-checking lesson with the Checkology fact-checking mission “Verifying social media content” with David Clinch from Storyful.

  • Note: The class went through Hurricane Sandy photos [in this slide deck] and discussed “How might people who are trying to get information about the hurricane have been influenced by the images?” Discussing how altered images and unconfirmed sources affect one’s perception of the world helped us ground some of our initial ideas on verifying online content. Discussing the Truman photo and its impact helped us further discuss why verifying information in all forms of news media is important (which we’ll definitely be talking about in class this week post-election). We had used this fact-checking in the digital age handout, but found that many students have used this site before in their computer science classes. Therefore we went with the Checkology lesson. Students said the lesson made the task easy to accomplish and helped them better understand the steps for fact-checking. The Checkology lesson also provided them with a more realistic example of what they would see every day, versus examples concocted for classroom purposes.

Days 6 and 7: End-of-unit project

Students created a process to help them determine the credibility of a news source. This process is meant to be used throughout the year when studying other topics and referencing news sources. View the assignment and a template You can also use Checkology’s Quick Check widget in the Check Center to help guide students through the process of determining the credibility of a claim or a source.

NLP launches News Literacy Ambassador Program

If 2020 has made anything clear, it’s that the future of our democracy depends on our collective ability to sort fact from fiction — and teaching students news literacy skills is crucial to this. To build our local footprint through community organizing efforts in the fight against misinformation, we have launched a News Literacy Ambassador Program.

Through this regional model for news literacy education, we can create a sense of belonging and community among educators. We know that if this movement is to be successful, it must be inclusive and local. These paid local organizers serve as our thought leadership partners, helping to identify the unique needs of educators in their school districts. These efforts will further help to combat misinformation and create a more news-literate generation of news consumers.

Thanks to news literacy leaders like you we have been able to make significant achievements during this challenging year. With our News Literacy Ambassador Program, we can do even more.

We welcome the following group of ambassadors:


 

Annual report: NLP meets challenges, expands mission

This week, we're releasing our annual report for fiscal year 2020 (July 2019-June 2020). It presents results of our work as we expanded our mission to reach not just students and educators but also the public. It also covers a time of great challenges for all of us. We believe that it reflects significant progress during the past year, and great promise for the future.

By Greg McCaffery and Alan C. Miller

Our world has been shaken and transformed since we shared our first annual report with you. In fact, it often feels like last fall was a decade ago.

Read the report here.

We’re proud to say that NLP has responded to the myriad challenges wrought by COVID-19 with resourcefulness and determination. As a result, with the second year of our four-year strategic plan completed, we marked numerous important gains.

During the 2019-20 school year we brought news literacy education to 702 educators and 33,894 students through our Checkology® virtual classroom. The student assessments conducted at the end of the school year prove that Checkology works. Far more students were able to recognize the standards of quality journalism and to understand the watchdog role of a free press and the First Amendment in a democracy.

The pandemic and the accompanying “infodemic” — an overabundance of information, including misinformation — inspired us to step up in new and innovative ways.

A rapid, robust response

In March, in response to schools nationwide transitioning to remote teaching, we decided to provide Checkology at no cost to educators and parents engaged in distance learning or homeschooling. In addition, we created a special page on our website with reliable information about COVID-19, used our weekly newsletter The Sift® to debunk misinformation about the virus, and developed two educational webinar series that drew 1,768 participants.

We knew we had to invest in additional resources to provide a growing number of educators with the support they needed to teach news literacy. We created an educator outreach and success team to respond to our educators and to help them succeed, providing support to implement Checkology and promoting the platform to school districts. And we also brought Ebonee Rice, a community engagement expert, on board to create and mobilize a nationwide network of 20,000 educators committed to news literacy.

Amid a perfect storm of misinformation and disinformation from the pandemic, the protests for racial justice and the 2020 elections, we moved to expand our mission to include you. Our free resources are now available to meet the urgent need for news literacy among people of all ages, and to help everyone become savvier consumers of news and information.

We hope that as you read this annual report, including a special section on the start of this new fiscal year, you will recognize your contributions in making these accomplishments possible.

Thank you for your ongoing support and for helping to preserve a future founded on facts.

From the Sift®: Understanding misinformation in the wake of the election

Misinformation and conspiracy theories thrive when curiosity and controversy are widespread and conclusive information is scarce or unavailable. The deeply polarized 2020 presidential election not only produced these conditions, it sustained them as ballots in a number of swing states with narrow vote margins were adjudicated and carefully counted.

To be sure, viral rumors swirled in the aftermath of Election Day. People who had been primed by partisan rhetoric to expect voter fraud leaned into their own biases. They misinterpreted isolated moments on livestreams of the ballot counting process in counties in several swing states, mistakenly saw “evidence” of rogue ballots being delivered in vague video clips, and were exploited by bad actors who readily circulated staged, manipulated and out-of-context content designed to mislead.

But the impact of these falsehoods was blunted by the work of professional fact-checkers, disinformation researchers and standards-based news organizations — and by social media platforms, which improved their content moderation efforts for the election. Facebook and Twitter took more effective actions against misinformation than either had previously. (However, Twitter indicated that with the election over, it would stop using warning labels on false or misleading tweets about the election outcome but continue its use of labels that provide additional context.) YouTube was more lax, allowing videos containing false claims about the election — including those that it acknowledged undermine trust in the democratic process — to remain live but without ads.

The days of uncertainty sparked isolated protests and some arrests, including two armed Virginia men. But for all the unresolved questions and still-rampant falsehoods, it seems, at least so far, that the worst-case scenarios were averted, even in an otherwise historic election with record turnout.

Related:

Note: Misinterpreting videos of the vote counting process at locations across the country is a textbook example of confirmation bias.

Upon Reflection: ‘Kind of a miracle,’ kind of a mess and the case for election reform

Note: This column is a periodic series of personal reflections on journalism, news literacy, education and related topics by NLP’s founder and CEO, Alan C. Miller. Columns are posted here at 10 a.m. ET every other Thursday — though there will be no column on Dec. 31 (New Year’s Eve). Publication will resume on Jan. 7.

Amid the chaos and controversy that has marred this post-election period, let’s take a moment to celebrate some things that went indisputably right in our recent rite of democracy:

  • During a devastating pandemic, more than 152 million Americans voted. This is a record and represents at least 64.4 percent of the voting-age population — which makes it the highest participation rate since at least 1908, when 65.4 percent of eligible voters cast ballots and Theodore Roosevelt was reelected president.
  • Despite embarrassing breakdowns and delays in various states during primaries, the process on Election Day went remarkably smoothly nationwide.
  • Fears of cyber-interference by Russia or others failed to materialize. The same was true of widespread voter harassment, voter intimidation or violence at polling places.

“This election was kind of a miracle,” Lawrence Norden, the director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said in an interview. “We had huge turnout during a pandemic and there really weren’t the kind of problems that we had in the past.”

“Voters were the heroes,” said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. They made good use “of all opportunities to access the ballot.”

There were other civic heroes, too: the thousands of Americans who painstakingly counted ballots, many working long hours under intense scrutiny against the backdrop of sporadic protests and an escalating pandemic.

Of course, this success has been overshadowed by the excruciating counting of enough votes in a handful of battleground states to declare Joe Biden president-elect and by Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that, absent widespread voter fraud, he would have won a second term.

While Trump’s refusal to concede is extraordinary, the election process itself is playing out in constitutionally mandated ways. Votes continue to be counted, as states typically have two to three weeks after Election Day to certify their totals. Courts are hearing lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign in several states. (This year the deadline for lawsuit resolution and vote certification is Dec. 8 — six days before the Electoral College meets, as required by federal law.) Recounts, which are customary in extremely close contests, are expected in a few states, though they typically result in changes too marginal to reverse outcomes. On Nov. 10, The New York Times reported that election officials of both parties nationwide said they had seen “no evidence that fraud or other irregularities played a role in the outcome of the presidential race.”

Votes, like facts, are stubborn things.

The unfolding national civics lesson has underscored the reality that the patchwork nature of our decentralized election system causes confusion and sows the seeds for disinformation. Each state decides how, when and where voters can cast their ballots; whether technical mistakes by voters (such as forgetting to sign an envelope or submitting a signature that doesn’t match the one in the voter database) can be “cured” (or fixed); and when mail-in ballots can begin to be counted.

The most striking — and damaging — disparity involves the counting of mail-in votes. As it became clear that a record number of Americans (more than 65 million) would go this route in response to COVID-19, a number of states changed their laws to avoid long delays in determining the results by enabling “pre-canvassing” (opening and organizing ballots for processing) days, or even weeks, before Election Day. Some states permit these ballots to be counted when they are received (one is Florida, which permits counting as early as 40 days before Election Day).

As the president insisted for months, without evidence, that the growing number of mail-in ballots would invite fraud, Republican-controlled legislatures in three battleground states declined to make significant changes in their timetables for counting them. Michigan revised its law to permit counting in some jurisdictions to begin only the day before Election Day; Wisconsin and Pennsylvania refused to permit counting until Election Day itself.

Gene DiGirolamo, a Republican commissioner in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, warned in September that without pre-canvassing, “we’ll be forced to contend with a man-made disaster — one that easily could be avoided.”

Sure enough, Pennsylvania, with its crucial 20 electoral votes, experienced a tsunami of mail-in votes. Because no work on those ballots could begin until the polls closed, it wasn’t until Nov. 7 — four drama-filled days later — that the networks and The Associated Press had sufficient data to call the state for Biden. Moreover, since far more Republicans voted at the polls and far more Democrats voted by mail, Trump predictably jumped out to a wide early lead, only to see Biden close in day by day until overtaking him.

This shifting public tabulation opened the door to the perception (and claims by Trump and his allies) that something nefarious was afoot — that votes mailed before Election Day were being cast afterward, or that votes were suddenly being “found” or that a conspiracy was underway to “steal” the election. This took hold among Trump supporters even as poll watchers from both parties observed the counting and Republican officials, both state and local, in Pennsylvania, Georgia and elsewhere vouched for the integrity of the process and the validity of the outcomes.

The result was corrosive — and it threatens to undermine Biden’s legitimacy with a large segment of the electorate. A Politico/Morning Consult survey conducted Nov. 6-9 found that 70 percent of Republicans said the election was “definitely” or “probably” not free and fair, primarily due to their belief that there was widespread fraud in mail-in voting. By contrast, 90 percent of Democrats said the election was free and fair.

The Constitution’s Elections Clause, which describes the rules for elections to the Senate and the House of Representatives, allows states to set their own regulations for congressional elections but gives Congress the authority to “make or alter” those regulations as necessary.  Given the current changes in voting patterns and advances in technology, Congress may consider setting uniform national rules for processing and counting mail-in ballots, permitting early voting, setting the deadline for receiving ballots, and ensuring the ability to “cure” ballots that have technical errors. Congress could also provide funds to upgrade aging voting machines and improve the infrastructure for mail-in voting.

“Other democracies have figured out how to count all of the votes without distorting the results, frightening their voters or sowing discord,” Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, wrote in a Nov. 8 opinion column for The New York Times. “If the last week has taught us anything, it’s that the United States should do the same.”

Read more in this series: