How news organizations can help fight coronavirus misinformation


By Matt DeRienzo • LMA Consultant

The dizzying pace of breaking news about the coronavirus pandemic, the global nature of the crisis, and bad actors seeking to manipulate and profit from false narratives have presented a unique challenge for news organizations trying to make sure their own coverage is accurate. And not helping were early efforts by the Trump administration, some Republican politicians aligned with Trump and Fox News to downplay the outbreak and mock efforts by scientists and media to warn people of its scope and danger.

Not just presenting accurate information, but going beyond to actively debunk misinformation spreading on social media platforms and via less responsible news outlets, could — no pressure! — be a matter of life and death for readers. The spread of false information can, for example, thwart adequate testing or lead people to take risks they shouldn’t.

Fact checking initiatives that emerged following Russian misinformation campaigns during the 2016 election have developed a number of journalism best practices that are now being adapted to coronavirus coverage.

First Draft has compiled a comprehensive set of resources for news organizations to fight disinformation about the outbreak, including verification tools and a searchable database of false viral claims about coronavirus that have been debunked. And Politifact has explored some of those debunked claims in more depth.

Tip sheets from Politifact and the Open Notebook include how to handle viral social media posts, verification of images and video, double-checking statistics, and avoiding adjectives that subtly downplay or exaggerate the outbreak. Also, “explain what we don’t know,” acknowledge the fears that can drive sharing of misinformation, and be wary of debunking false claims that haven’t actually gotten that much attention in the first place.

The Trusting News Project has advice on how to communicate with readers about your reporting process and how information is verified. Being clear about the goal of your coverage, explaining how you decide which stories to cover, and how coverage affects your bottom line (many are accusing the media of hyping the pandemic for profit), and asking for input from readers can be essential to establishing trust.

Poynter’s Kelly McBride has also explored a variety of ethical judgments news orgs will have to confront in covering the coronavirus, from when and whether to name victims, to how to avoid spreading panic with choice of photos and headlines.

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