When covering conspiracies and disinformation, avoid adding credibility

7 oct 2020 dans Combating Mis- and Disinformation
A picture of a handrail with a painted photo of bigfoot being abducted by aliens

QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory that has surfaced as a factor in congressional races and news coverage in the 2020 presidential election. “We are Q” posters and T-shirts have appeared at President Donald Trump’s rallies, sending up red flags.

Operatives function as provocateurs intent on luring followers away from mainstream media. Even conservative Fox News has been in their crosshairs. “They encourage distrust of any news sites outside of their frame,” said Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher with the Technology and Social Change Project at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Political parties attempting to manipulate news coverage is nothing new, but Friedberg’s research shows QAnon has expanded its base and pushed disinformation to an extreme.

For journalists, it is a Catch-22. Ignoring these groups is not an option. The public has a right to know who they are and the threats they pose. But, amplification also is an issue. Does press coverage unwittingly provide oxygen to extremist movements?

For a project called “The Oxygen of Amplification,” media literacy expert Whitney Phillips explored the fine line journalists walk when covering groups with extremist views.

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“The takeaway for establishment journalists is stark, and starkly distressing,” Phillips wrote in her study. “Just by showing up and doing their jobs, journalists covering the far-right fringe — which subsumed everything from professional conspiracy theorists to pro-Trump social media posters to actual Nazis — played directly into these groups’ public relations interests. In the process, this coverage added not just oxygen but rocket fuel to an already-smoldering fire.” 

Many of the 50 journalists she interviewed acknowledged their work provided publicity and may have energized manipulators. How can media avoid becoming a bullhorn for extremist groups? 

Phillips, a Syracuse University communications professor, advises against framing “bad actors” as the center of narratives, reinforcing that their behavior warrants news coverage. Reporters should also consider the following questions:

  • Does the story reach beyond the interests of a specific online community to the point where it is being shared and discussed more widely?
  • Is there a larger positive social benefit, such as adding to an existing conversation about solutions to a problem, or sparking a new conversation about an important topic?
  • Will the story cause harm to those involved, including embarrassment, re-traumatization or professional damage?

Claire Wardle, U.S director of First Draft, an organization that fights disinformation, posted a guide to help journalists and editors in their decision-making process about whether to cover a specific group, movement or misinformation campaign. Here are some of her main points from the guide, “10 questions to ask before covering misinformation:

  • Who is my audience? “Are they likely to have seen a particular piece of mis- or dis-information already? If not, what are the consequences of bringing it to the attention of a wider audience?,” asks Wardle in the report.
  • How much traffic should a piece have before we address it? Wardle asks, “What is the tipping point, and how do we measure it? On Twitter, for example, do we check whether a hashtag made it to a country’s top 10 trending topics?”
  • How should we write about attempts at manufactured amplification? “Should we focus on debunking the messages of automated campaigns (fact-checking)? Or do we focus on the actors behind them (source-checking)? Or do both?” she writes in the article.

“Efforts to undermine and explain deliberate falsehoods can be extremely valuable and are almost always in the public interest, but they must be handled with care,” wrote Wardle. “All journalists and their editors should understand the risk of legitimizing a rumor and spreading it further.” 

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Aimee Rinehart, U.S. deputy director of First Draft, believes that journalists should avoid “fringing” these extremist movements. Instead, journalists should focus on their destructive beliefs, such as homophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

“[QAnon’s] foundational beliefs are deeply troubling and toxic. That’s what the media should be looking at,” said Rinehart.

To help their journalists and staff, some newsrooms have devised policies on how to fight disinformation, such as that spread by Q or even by mainstream politicians. Jane Elizabeth, managing editor of The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., has made fact-checking a centerpiece of the newspaper’s operation.

“For journalists, it really is a conundrum,” said Elizabeth. “Some politicians understand fact-checking better now [than in 2016] and they’re looking for ways to get around it. They’ve gotten smarter.”

Transparency, said Elizabeth, is a vital part of the process. The News and Observer posts their fact-checking guidelines, ethics code and a sample story that illustrates the rigors of fact-checking on their website. Readers are provided with a list of resources that were consulted in writing a particular fact-check, along with the names of reporters’ and editors’ who worked on it.

Earlier this summer when President Donald Trump told a North Carolina audience they should vote twice to make sure their vote by mail counted, the News and Observer was careful not to keep repeating his incorrect statements in their coverage to avoid amplification as discussed earlier.

Instead, they created a Q&A on how to vote and used a pullout quote, “No, you can’t vote twice.” 

“Disinformation has become part of our contemporary social fabric and it’s not going to go away easily,” said Friedberg. “We have to continue to do this work if we are going to get through it.”


This article was adapted from a story originally posted on DataJournalism.com. It was edited and republished on IJNet with permission.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Darren Halstead.

Sherry Ricchiardi Ph.D. is the co-author of ICFJ's Disaster and Crisis Coverage guide and international media trainer who has worked with journalists around the world on conflict reporting, trauma and safety issues.