Published On: Thu, May 19th, 2022

Out-of-context Clarence Thomas photo — and other news literacy lessons

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Here’s the latest installment of a weekly feature I’ve been running for some time on this blog — lessons from the nonprofit News Literacy Project, which aims to teach students and the public how to sort fact from fiction in our digital and contentious age. There hasn’t been a time in recent U.S. history when this skill has been as important given social and partisan media outlets’ ability to spread rumors and lies.

The News Literacy Project was founded more than a decade ago by Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter at the Los Angeles Times, and it has become the leading provider of news literacy education. You can learn more about the organization and its resources and programs here.

The material in this post comes from the Sift, the organization’s newsletter for educators, which has more than 23,000 subscribers. Published weekly during the school year, it explores timely examples of misinformation, addresses media and press freedom topics, discusses 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.

The News Literacy Project’s browser-based e-learning platform, Checkology, 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 NLP’s resources and programs are free. Since 2016, more than 37,000 educators in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and more than 120 countries have registered to use the platform. Since August 2020, more than 3,000 educators and more than 125,000 students have actively used Checkology.

Here’s material from the May 16 edition of the Sift:

1. Authorities are investigating connections between the May 14 mass shooting in Buffalo, and the “great replacement theory,” a racist, anti-Semitic ideology that festers in extremist echo chambers online and has seeped into mainstream political discourse. The shooting — which killed 10 people, most of them Black — was briefly live-streamed on Twitch before being taken down, but copies of the video continue to proliferate across social media.

“Why NPR isn’t using the word ‘manifesto’” (Tony Cavin, NPR).

“The Buffalo supermarket shooting suspect allegedly posted an apparent manifesto repeatedly citing ‘great replacement’ theory” (Ben Collins, NBC News).

Resource: “Conspiratorial Thinking” (Checkology virtual classroom).

2. Should journalists be able to express personal views about the issues they cover? That question is at the heart of a renewed debate following the recent Supreme Court leak involving Roe v. Wade. Some newsrooms advised journalists to refrain from expressing their opinions on abortion to avoid accusations or perceptions of bias, while Rolling Stone magazine’s top editor Noah Shachtman told staffers “you don’t have to stifle your beliefs,” and said in a May 11 tweet that he didn’t “understand the logic of telling your staff to stay quiet while their rights are being taken away.”

Discuss: Can journalists express personal opinions without damaging people’s trust in the fairness of their journalism? What steps do journalists and news organizations take to minimize bias in news coverage?

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

Outdated and experimental homemade baby formula recipes are unsafe

NO: It is not safe to use old or experimental recipes for infant baby formula, or diluted formula.

YES: Unsafe and antiquated recipes for formula have gone viral across social media platforms during a national shortage of commercial baby formula.

YES: According to experts who strongly advise against using DIY recipes, homemade formula typically contains inadequate essential nutrients and possibly dangerous bacteria and toxic levels of other substances such as salt and water.

NewsLit takeaway: People often share misinformation with good intentions, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still harmful. Several homemade baby formula recipes circulated online in early May 2022, along with this widely shared photo. The user comments on these and other posts about the formula shortage recount personal anecdotes about having been raised on homemade formula, implying that the recipes are safe. But medical consensus on many health-related topics, including pregnancy and childbirth, have changed significantly since 1960 (the date on the recipe in the photo). For example, many doctors in the mid-1960s believed alcohol stopped premature labor and recommended women in preterm labor be given vodka and orange juice or alcohol through an IV.

Remember: While it may be tempting to try health-related guidance you find on social media, especially in times of need, it’s always best to consult with your doctor.

Occupy Democrats push out-of-context celebratory photo of Justice Clarence Thomas and wife Ginni Thomas

NO: This photo of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, is not recent and was not taken as the court is deliberating a case that could overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion rights ruling.

YES: The photo was posted online as early as 2018.

NewsLit takeaway: Hyperpartisan advocacy groups operate to promote a specific political agenda and sometimes put ideology before accuracy. Political posts designed to elicit outrage — also known as “outrage bait” — can be extremely effective at driving social media engagement and a widening circle of online supporters. It’s always a good idea to stay skeptical about divisive social media posts that provoke a strong emotional reaction, particularly when they resonate strongly with your politics and come from a partisan organization. In this case, people who oppose the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade may be especially vulnerable to reacting to this false claim too quickly. Finally, the fact that this post uses inflammatory language in all caps and explicitly asks people to retweet (“RT IF YOU THINK THAT THEY ARE A DISGRACE!”) are both red flags and indications that the tweet should be approached with skepticism.

Related: “Fact Check: Individuals Who Seek Or Get Abortion in Alabama Are NOT ‘Thrown In Prison For Life’” (Christiana Dillard, Lead Stories).

Resource: Reverse image search tutorial (Checkology virtual classroom).

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

Here are some more news literacy lessons:

‘News and information chaos’ grows — and other news literacy lessons

Marjorie Taylor Greene, disinformation on Ukraine casualties and other news literacy lessons

Joe Rogan, vaccine deniers and other news literacy lessons

How to avoid being duped by false Ukraine information — and other news literacy lessons

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