Sunday, July 14, 2024

Perspective | Cherry-picking climate data, limiting social media and more news literacy lessons

Perspective | Cherry-picking climate data, limiting social media and more news literacy lessons


Here’s the latest installment of a regular feature I’ve been running for several years: lessons from the nonprofit News Literacy Project (NLP), which aims to teach students and the public how to sort fact from fiction in our digital — and contentious — age. With the spread of rumors, baseless accusations and conspiracy theories on social and partisan media sites, there has never been a time in recent U.S. history when this skill has been as important as now.

The material in this post comes from the Sift, the organization’s newsletter for educators, which has nearly 22,000 subscribers. Published weekly during the school year, it explores timely examples of misinformation, addresses media and press freedom topics, looks at social media trends and issues, and includes discussion prompts and activities for the classroom. Get Smart About News, modeled on the Sift, is a free weekly newsletter for the public.

NLP has an e-learning platform, Checkology, that helps educators teach middle and high school students how to identify credible information, seek out reliable sources and know what to trust, what to dismiss and what to debunk.

It also gives them an appreciation of the importance of the First Amendment and a free press. Checkology and all of the NLP’s resources and programs are free. Since 2016, more than 42,000 educators and 375,000 students in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and more than 120 other countries have registered to use the platform.

Here’s material from the Feb. 6, 2023, edition of the Sift:

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

This week, we talk to Los Angeles Times reporter Libor Jany about his role covering the Los Angeles Police Department. You can watch the interview here. Jany discusses his approach to reporting on public safety and how he develops sources on his beat. We consider some of the ways that sources share information with reporters — including what it means to be on the record, on background and off the record. Jany also sheds light on the steps journalists take to verify information and explains why it’s important to seek out diverse viewpoints and perspectives. You can explore previous News Goggles videos, annotations and activities in NLP’s Resource Library under “Classroom Activities.”

Resource: “Practicing Quality Journalism” (NLP’s Checkology virtual classroom).

Idea: Contact a local journalist using NLP’s Newsroom to Classroom program and ask them to discuss how they decide which sources to include in news coverage.

Dig deeper: Use this viewing guide for the featured News Goggles video to help students take notes on how journalists develop and use sources in news reports.

1. Renewed journalism debates over objectivity in reporting the news were sparked from an op-ed by Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post. Downie argues that news outlets should “move beyond” the idea of objectivity to build trust. As newsrooms become more diverse and inclusive of women, people of color and LGBTQ+ journalists, traditional conceptions of journalistic objectivity may function in a way that “negates many [journalists’] own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work,” Downie wrote. “Beyond Objectivity,” a new report co-authored by Downie, provides newsroom guidelines to strive for accuracy and fairness, while avoiding the pitfalls posed by the misguided pursuit of neutrality.

Discuss: How would you define traditional journalistic objectivity? Does it mean the same thing as neutrality, or is it something different? Can a focus on producing “objective” reporting backfire and work to prevent “truly accurate reporting?” What different types of biases might influence news coverage? Does striving for accuracy and fairness differ from the concept of objectivity?

Resource: “Understanding Bias” (Checkology virtual classroom).

“This report sees journalistic ‘bias’ less as partisanship and more as relying on too-comfortable habits” (Joshua Benton, Nieman Lab)

“When Americans lost faith in the news” (Louis Menand, the New Yorker)

2. Federal legislation was recently introduced to ban children and teens under 16 from using social media due to mental health and well-being concerns, on the heels of the U.S. surgeon general saying 13 is “too early” for kids to be on social media apps. Additionally, in Utah a bill that imposes age verification and requires parent consent for teens’ social media accounts is being considered. If passed, SB152 would also limit teen users’ hours of access, block ads and some direct messaging, and require tech companies to provide parents with content and interactions of their children’s accounts upon request. Utah’s governor and attorney general also have announced that the state is planning to sue social media companies for the harmful impact the platforms have on the mental health of teens. This month, Seattle Public Schools also filed a lawsuit against social media companies for similar reasons.

Discuss: Should government regulate social media platforms? Should tech companies be legally obligated to verify the age of users? Do you think parents have a right to access their children’s accounts? Why or why not? Do you agree that social media is harmful to teens’ mental health? Why or why not?

“Should children under 16 be denied access to social media apps?” (Dennis Romboy, Deseret News).

“Social media companies in the U.S. brace to battle onslaught of legal challenges” (MacKenzie Ryan, the Guardian).

“The Teenager Leading the Smartphone Liberation Movement” (“First Person” podcast).

3. More than half of teens report that “some” or “a lot” of what they have learned about climate change comes from social media, according to an Education Week survey of 14-to-18-year-olds. Most teens cited YouTube (60 percent) as the social media platform where they had seen climate change information, followed by Facebook (46 percent), TikTok (44 percent) and Instagram (40 percent) — underscoring the need for media literacy.

Idea: Ask students where they’ve come across climate change information online. Did they seek out this information, or did it find them (through suggestions by algorithms, etc.)? What kind of scientific claims did they see? As a class, select a few specific claims students came across to fact-check.

Resource: “Evaluating Science-Based Claims” (Checkology virtual classroom).

“How to Stop the Spread of Climate Disinformation” (Erika Seiber and Michael Khoo, The Nation).

— Opinion: “Big Tech Helps Big Oil Spread Subtle Climate Denialism” (Mark Gongloff, Bloomberg).

Receive timely RumorGuard updates by signing up for RG alerts here.

CNN did not lighten photos of Memphis police officers and call them ‘white supremacists’

NO: CNN did not alter the brightness of photographs to make the five Black police officers charged in Tyre Nichols’s death in January appear to have lighter skin.

NO: CNN also did not broadcast the text shown in this image.

YES: Fact-checkers at Reuters determined that this is a digitally altered screenshot of a 2016 newscast that has become a template for other social media memes.

NewsLit takeaway: Doctored screenshots of newscasts are commonly used in internet memes to denigrate news outlets and sometimes to stir up racial outrage. This particular screenshot featuring CNN anchor Lynda Kinkade has been featured in dozens of similar memes that all use fake chyrons (captions or banners) and unrelated, often altered images to make it appear as though CNN had a particularly biased, sensationalized or untrustworthy report. This meme also borrows from another misinformation trope involving digitally altering skin color to falsely claim that mainstream news organizations fabricate or alter stories to push a racial agenda. One of the most persistent goals of online propagandists is to promote distrust in authoritative sources, including news outlets, health experts and government bodies. By painting these entities as untrustworthy, distributors of disinformation can steer audiences to less credible alternative information sources that push extreme political and ideological agendas. Remember, by practicing news literacy skills such as checking for additional sources and performing reverse image searches on questionable pieces of media, social media users can protect themselves against these bad faith arguments.

Climate deniers share cherry-picked data to falsely claim planet is cooling

NO: The annual global climate report for 2022 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) does not state that data from the last eight years show Earth is undergoing a cooling trend.

YES: NOAA said Earth “continued its warming trend” over the last eight years and that 2022 was the sixth warmest year on record.

YES: A prominent climate denier misleadingly used data from a graph in NOAA’s Jan. 12 news release about the report to falsely say global temperatures are cooling, according to

NewsLit takeaway: Deliberately using selective and incomplete data — also known as cherry-picking — is an age-old trick used by those peddling falsehoods and bad-faith arguments. Truncating data visualizations, or isolating only data that supports a belief or point of view, is a cherry-picking tactic often used with graphs and charts. While the full 143-year data set from NOAA makes it alarmingly clear that the Earth’s temperature is rapidly warming, this viral tweet uses a segment of a graph in NOAA’s news release about the report and attempts to subvert that reality by isolating just the last eight years. When returned to their full context, it’s clear these eight years represent some of the hottest in the data set. Remember to take care when you encounter data-based claims on social media — especially about topics such as climate change, which are commonly targeted for disinformation. It’s always a good idea to go back to the source to double-check that scientific reports and data are being presented accurately.

• How did a local reporter get duped into writing an emotional — but false — story about a 19-year-old’s battle with cancer? He let her be his only source.

• As the number of legacy local newspapers declines, “The Roadmap for Local News” report outlines a new practice called “civic media,” which focuses on “giving people information they need to make the places they live better.”

• AI technology doesn’t only help bad actors churn out misinformation online — it can also help fact-checkers identify and debunk falsehoods more efficiently and effectively.

• Russia is targeting several African countries with disinformation campaigns that resemble their efforts to divide Americans and interfere with the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

• Accepting an invitation from Beyoncé to a private party in Dubai where she performs for an exclusive audience and pays for your hotel and first-class airplane tickets is a total no-brainer — unless you’re a journalist. A group of journalists accepted this invitation, prompting media ethics experts to weigh in on the extravagant trip.

ICYMI: In case you missed it, the most-clicked link in last week’s issue was this story about ChatGPT in schools.

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