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Fake News? Media Literacy!: "5 to Teach"

From "The Sift" 5 To Teach

A flattering piece about Facebook posted by Teen Vogue was the source of much confusion last week. “How Facebook Is Helping Ensure the Integrity of the 2020 Election” appeared on Jan. 8 without any indication that it was a piece of sponsored content, paid for by the world’s largest social media company.

Soon after it was posted, an editor’s note — “This is sponsored editorial content” — was added at the top. Later, that note was removed. Finally, the entire piece disappeared. Lauren Rearick, a contributor to Teen Vogue, was at one point listed as the author, but she told Mashable that she didn’t write it. Asked on Twitter what the piece was, Teen Vogue replied: “literally idk.”

In a post that was later deleted, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, called it a “great Teen Vogue piece about five incredible women protecting elections on Facebook.” A company spokeswoman initially said that the piece was “purely editorial”; later, Facebook said that “there was a misunderstanding” and that it indeed “had a paid partnership with Teen Vogue related to their women’s summit, which included sponsored content.”

In its statement, Teen Vogue said: “We made a series of errors labeling this piece, and we apologize for any confusion this may have caused. We don’t take our audience’s trust for granted, and ultimately decided that the piece should be taken down entirely to avoid further confusion.”
Discuss: What is the difference between a piece of sponsored content (also known as “branded content” or “native advertising”) and a piece of journalism? Is it important for news outlets to clearly label such content? Why? If you were in charge of Teen Vogue, how would you have handled the piece about Facebook? Was Teen Vogue right to delete it? Did it sufficiently explain how the mistakes in handling the piece were made? Does this change the level of trust you have in Teen Vogue? Why or why not?
Idea: Have students find examples of sponsored content published by up to five different standards-based news organizations. Ask students to note the differences between the sponsored content and the straight news coverage from the same outlet. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different? Do they look the same, or are they labeled differently?
Related: “Branded Content,” a lesson in the Checkology® virtual classroom (Premium account required).
Could the critical-thinking skills taught as part of media literacy actually make some students more prone to conspiratorial thinking? That’s the question Will Partin raises in a Jan. 8 opinion piece in The Outline, an online publication "focused on the increasingly complex confluence of culture, power and technology." Partin, a graduate research assistant in the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues that many of the ways that adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory support their beliefs — by, for example, doing their own research, reading critically and questioning all sources of information — are also strategies that students often learn as part of “media literacy.”

In short, Partin contends that problems (such as belief in conspiracy theories) can arise when skepticism runs amok and turns into a kind of cynicism that leads people not just to question information, but to distrust — including information from “knowledge-making institutions” like the medical establishment and mainstream news organizations.
Note:  The term “media literacy” is often used as an umbrella term for several overlapping fields, including news literacy and information literacy.
Also note: What is taught as “media literacy” may vary significantly from one educator to another.
Discuss: Can some healthy information habits, such as doing your own research about issues, lead people astray? How? How can we know when to trust experts and respected institutions about a given subject? Does exercising skepticism online mean questioning all sources of information equally? How can the practice of asking critical questions lead to an uncertainty that facts exist, and that some things are demonstrably “true”?
In The New York Times’ “most transparent endorsement process to date,” all editorial board interviews of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are, for the first time, being conducted on the record, Kathleen Kingsbury, deputy editorial page editor, wrote in a Jan. 9 Twitter thread. They are also being filmed for the first time, and “full, annotated transcripts” will be published online this week. The editorial board plans to announce its preferred candidate on Jan. 19 — two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the first opportunity for voters to make a selection in the 2020 presidential campaign.

The Times’ opinion section, which includes the editorial board, is separate from the news organization’s newsgathering operation, Kingsbury noted. “Voters have a lot to think about in this election cycle, and we want to help,” she tweeted.
Note: “On the record” means that everything discussed in the interviews can be published.
Discuss: Should newspapers’ editorial boards endorse political candidates? Do you agree with the Times’ decision to make the endorsement process more transparent? Do you think that watching these interviews or reading the transcripts will help voters make decisions? Do you think that this kind of added transparency increases the value of the Times’ opinion journalism? Do you think the transcripts of these sessions are helpful to voters? Why or why not? What is the difference between a news organization’s opinion section and its newsgathering operation?
settlement has been reached in the defamation lawsuit filed by Nicholas Sandmann, a student at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, and his parents against CNN. The Sandmanns sued the network in March (PDF) over its coverage of an incident at the National Mall a year ago.

The coverage grew out of a viral video — later found to have been taken out of context — that showed Sandmann, wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, appearing to confront Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist, near the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 18, 2019, as a nearby group of Black Hebrew Israelites, another activist group, shouted at them. (The National Mall was the site of two rallies that day, the Indigenous Peoples March and the March for Life.)

The Sandmanns’ suit against CNN had asked for $275 million or more in damages; no information about any payment has been made public. The Sandmanns have also sued The Washington Post and NBCUniversal.

Discuss:  What is considered “defamation” in the United States? What are the two main types of defamation? What must be proven about a published or spoken statement for it to be defamatory? Are thresholds for defamation different for private citizens and public figures? Is this fair?

Idea:  Have students learn the basic conditions that must be met for a statement to be found defamatory. (The statement in question must be provably false, not a matter of opinion; it must have damaged the subject’s reputation; and the publisher of the statement must be shown to have acted “negligently.”) Have students review one or more examples of the CNN coverage listed in the Sandmanns’ complaint (see the PDF linked above) — such as this Jan. 19, 2019, broadcast segment, or this one, or this archived version of CNN’s first print report published on its website — and ask them if they think that the reports are defamatory. (Note: If you choose to use “Nicholas Sandmann: The Truth in 15 Minutes” — the video prepared by the Sandmanns’ legal team, linked in paragraph #80 of the complaint — be aware that it includes raw footage with foul language.)

Note:  Since CNN has updated its original reporting on this incident but maintained the original URLs for the articles on its website, you might use this as an opportunity to teach your students how to search for captures of a specific URL at a particular time on a particular date, using web archivers like or the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.


Facebook has toughened its policy on the manipulated and misleading videos known as deepfakes, Monika Bickert, vice president for global policy management, wrote in a Jan. 6 post to the company’s Newsroom page. A deepfake will be removed from the platform if it has been altered in ways that are not obvious to “an average person” and could mislead users into thinking that someone said words that they actually didn’t; it will also be removed if it is produced by artificial intelligence or machine learning “that merges, replaces or superimposes content onto a video,” making it look authentic.

However, Bickert continued, the policy does not apply to parody, satire or video edited “to omit or change the order of words.”

Discuss: How should Facebook decide which deepfake videos are considered “satire”? How might bad actors attempt to exploit this exemption? Which pose a bigger threat for political misinformation: deepfakes or “cheapfakes” (video that has been edited or altered in deceptive ways using much less sophisticated methods)?