Factually: The difficult choices in coronavirus reporting 

News organizations are tracking coronavirus cases as they are confirmed. But what happens when there are suspected cases? Should they be reported too?

On the one hand, reporting cases that are suspected but not confirmed could perform a necessary public service for audiences who might have read about the cases on social media or wonder why a school was closed. On the other hand, if it’s only a suspected case, publishing unconfirmed information could generate unnecessary fear and uncertainty.

It’s one of many gray areas news people face in covering the COVID-19 outbreak, forcing difficult choices between satisfying public hunger for new developments and avoiding the amplification of unconfirmed information, misinformation or outright conspiracies.

Misinformation about the virus is so widespread that it’s being called an infodemic, which the World Health Organization says is “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

The falsehoods on social media and other platforms involve every aspect of the virus: its origins, the number of cases, the kinds of precautions people should take, how it spreads, potential treatments, and who is most at risk. The misinformation ranges from silly to dangerous.

These hoaxes and falsehoods often create tricky calculations for news organizations. In debunking a conspiracy theory about the disease’s origins, for example, are news organizations actually drawing attention to it?

There are also judgment calls involving situations that are unquestionably true. Take, for example, the fact that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited a school where a student and his mother have since been quarantined after she came into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.

The school told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that the student was not among those who met with Pence when he visited. And the school said neither the student nor his mom is showing symptoms. So is it worth reporting?

The local papers wrote about it, as did Bloomberg News, among others. But some big national news organizations simply ignored the story, presumably concluding that it wasn’t news.

In an era of misinformation, professional news leaders are accustomed by now to stories that test their ethics and challenge their judgment. But as the coronavirus — and the misinformation surrounding it — continues to spread, these difficult choices will also proliferate.

Related note for journalists: The Washington Post’s science editor, Laura Helmuth, offered some excellent tips on The Open Notebook, a nonprofit that provides tools and resources for science writers.

— Susan Benkelman, API

. . . technology

  • In a new poll by the Knight Foundation and Gallup, 72% of respondents said internet platforms should make no user information available to political campaigns in order to target certain voters with online advertisements.
    • Solid majorities also said social media companies should ban misleading content in political ads, the groups said. That includes ads that would target supporters of an opposing candidate and provide the wrong election date (81%) or ads that say a politician voted for a policy they didn’t actually vote for (62%).
  • Facebook is giving the World Health Organization free advertising to combat misinformation on the coronavirus, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post on the platform.

. . . politics

  • A new study published in Nature Human Behaviour concluded that web sites that published factually dubious content during the U.S. 2016 presidential campaign made up a small share of people’s information diets on average. These results, the study says, “suggest that the widespread speculation about the prevalence of exposure to untrustworthy websites has been overstated.”
    • Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan, one of the study’s authors, told Scientific American that the main problem with these sites is the risk that someone in power will amplify their lies. “One implication of our study is that most of the misinformation that people get about politics doesn’t come from these fringe web sites. It comes from the mainstream — it comes from the media and political figures who are the primary sources of political news and commentary,” he said.

. . . science and health

  • The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto published an article showing that Chinese social media platforms have been blocking messages about the new coronavirus. The researchers say the censorship might have affected critical medical information too.
  • Police departments are spreading coronavirus misinformation as a joke, BuzzFeed reported.
  • While struggling to fight the new coronavirus, Taiwan is also witnessing a serious digital attack driven by malicious disinformers, two fact-checkers there wrote for Poynter.

Chequeado, in Argentina, has proved once more that live fact-checking is powerful and useful. Last Sunday, 28 fact-checkers got together with 14 experts and 8 volunteers in Buenos Aires to check the first speech given by the recently elected president Alberto Fernández while opening the legislative year.

Fernández spoke for about 1 hour and 40 minutes and had 10 claims assessed. Six of them were rated true. Fernández used good data to talk about the economic crisis his country is facing, Chequeado concluded. And he shared the right information about the agreement Argentina has with the International Monetary Fund and the fact that the unemployment rate rose to 9.7% during Mauricio Macri’s presidency.

Four other claims, however, were considered misleading. Fernández exaggerated, for example, when he said Argentina had a record inflation of 53.8% in 2019. It wasn’t a record.

In addition to fact-checking, Chequeado’s team also counted the words used most frequently by the new president in his speech and created a robust website to share all the content. Argentina was obviously number one, with 53 mentions, followed by “national” (41 mentions), “state” (40), “development” (37) and “social” (36). On Monday, Chequeado’s editors also discussed the most important findings on a 14-minute podcast, lending a multi-platform aspect to its work.

What we liked: The idea of inviting experts and volunteers to live fact-check politicians is not only courageous but also adds transparency to the fact-checking process. To broaden its reach, Chequeado also offers an intensive training workshop to those who want to join them at such an important moment.

— Cristina Tardáguila, IFCN 

  1. CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale told the network’s Brian Stelter on Sunday that journalists covering Donald Trump need to “resist being beaten down by the frequency of dishonesty … and treat it as news every time …”

  2. The Texas Secretary of State said voters were the target of misleading robocalls about the timing of last Tuesday’s primaries.

  3. Overall, though, the Department of Homeland Security and disinformation experts monitoring social media had a relatively quiet night on Super Tuesday, NBC reported.

  4. Business Insider India is offering readers tips on identifying falsehoods on WhatsApp.

  5. Nigerian novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani wrote for the BBC about the impact of fabricated news in her country.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org.

Cristina and Susan

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