EJN panel shares expert tips for journalists on tackling Covid-19 misinformation
By Ali May, EJN UK Committee member
As vaccines effective against the novel Coronavirus begin their global rollout, tackling misinformation, disinformation and earning public confidence could not be more starkly an issue of life and death.
This was the theme of a panel for the Ethical Journalism Network chaired by EJN trustee and Bureau of Investigative Journalism global editor James Ball, in which experts explored the role of journalists in tackling disinformation, the communicating of public health messages, and online fact-checking during this key phase of response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
What should journalists do to tackle misinformation, where are such myths coming from, and how can reporters avoid inadvertently becoming vectors for health misinformation? Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, Kate Wilkinson, Nina Jankowicz, Anjana Ahuja and Marianna Spring joined Ball to share their insights.
A wave of misinformation about Coronavirus on social media has evolved over the past year, observed BBC Specialist Reporter Marianna Spring who covers disinformation and social media.
“At the beginning, it was lots of panicked viral WhatsApp messages, voice notes, lots of really understandable concern about what was going on about lockdowns, about how you could cure or prevent Coronavirus and while it was often spread quite innocently, its impact could often be really quite bad, giving people bad health advice, advice at a time when they most need good advice and resulting in direct harm. And as the pandemic went on, you started to see the human cost of that misinformation,” she said.
The same sentiment was reflected in comments by Nina Jankowicz, the author of How to Lose the Information War.
“Disinformation is not just silly memes on the internet. It’s not just fringe groups, talking about fringy things, but it has offline harm. And I think over the last year, we have seen case after case after case of that harm being borne out in real life.”
She pointed at the case of Ukrainians evacuated from Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic whose return caused riots in the country, with their bus attacked.
In such a tricky environment, the importance of fact-checking has become vital. And it comes in different forms, depending on the context. Fact-checking sometimes needs to play a diplomatic role, according to Kate Wilkinson, deputy chief editor at Africa Check.
“You sometimes have to act as a bit of a bridge between what’s happening on the ground, and what the scientific community thinks is worthy of their time and attention,” she said, “What can be difficult though, is when you go to an expert, a scientist, or a doctor who is understandably under quite a lot of pressure and stress, and you take what they consider to be quite ridiculous concepts or ideas, and you want half an hour of their time to actually unpack it. So, you can explain accurately why that can’t be the case, you sometimes get a mismatch between what the public is really fervently believing and what the experts or the scientists believe is worth their time or worth debunking.”
Editorial judgement becomes much more important at times of crisis. In the middle of a global pandemic, journalists have to make “a nuanced judgment about where the balance of evidence lies,” said science journalist Anjana Ahuja, a contributing writer for the Financial Times.
“Deciding what to platform is important,” she said, “There’s no point me putting up something quite frivolous just to knock it down, because that actually just circulates the idea further.”
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, author of the Art of Statistics, said there was reason to be optimistic, caused by the side effects of the pandemic.
“The relationship between the media and experts has matured,” he said, “experts have become, hopefully, better at expressing uncertainty, about inadequacy of explaining that the evidence isn’t good enough to be confident either way.”
He hoped that journalists will “realise that science is a hotly disputed area, that basically, there’s a lot of uncertainty, there are groups with different opinions that never been aired in public.”
Tips for journalists, shared by the panellists:
- Get in there first. Counter the misinformation before people hear it on WhatsApp.
- Don’t try to use tricks to be trusted. Demonstrate trustworthiness on a purely ethical basis.
- Think carefully about what issues are worth legitimising by covering, and how issues might need to be reframed. In the case of climate change, Ahuja says ‘I decided to reframe it in my writing as climate emergency or crisis. Because it suggests that with climate change there is no question. The extent is how much do we need to worry about it? It’s happening.’
- Meet people where they are in a language that they understand.
- Approach people and the issues they hold strongly with empathy. Disinformation and conspiracy theories online can have a significant impact on people. Understanding the legitimate concerns and fears often explain why they’ve sought out those conspiracies, or where they have been preyed upon or conned into believing them. Separate those who are victims or casualties of online falsehoods and conspiracies from those often very small number of committed activists or bad actors who are deliberately looking to exploit that nervousness or that concern.