New Research Identifies Quality Journalism as Antidote to COVID-19 Disinformation

António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations
António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations

New research published by the United Nations (UN) and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) has identified quality journalism as a major force for identifying and exposing disinformation. The research report finds that the ‘viral load’ of disinformation will only grow if journalism continues to suffer death blows inflicted by the pandemic.

In two reports, UN and ICFJ argue that ensuring journalism survives the COVID-19 pandemic is a mission-critical challenge for the UN system, for governments and others trying to fight what has now been termed the disinfodemic.

The first report identifies nine different themes of the disinfodemic, and four typical formats while the second report critically analyzes ten methods of response to the crisis being deployed against COVID-19 disinformation around the world.

The research acknowledges that many of the legal and policy steps being implemented are designed to defend public health but notes that while presented as ‘cures,’ some of these steps could actually hinder the work of journalists and others engaged in vital research, investigation and storytelling about the pandemic – and the disinfodemic that helps fuel it.

In recognition of the risks associated with the responses to the disinfodemicthe UN/ICFJ research identified, 40 recommendations have been made for action aimed at the UN, governments, technology companies, the news media, civil society organizations, law enforcement agencies, and others.

below is a shortlist of 21 of the recommendations with a journalism focus.

Governments could:
• Recognize journalists as key workers and offer them the assistance and protection accordingly under national emergency conditions*
• Review and adapt their responses to the disinfodemic to conform with internationally recognized freedom of expression, access to information and privacy rights
• Increase transparency and pro-active disclosure of official information and data, especially on COVID-19 related issues
• Support investment in strengthening independent journalism, as the economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis threaten journalistic sustainability around the world
• Earmark funding and support for media and information literacy focused on combating the disinfodemic, especially through educational interventions
• Work with internet communications companies to establish privacy-preserving, secure data exchanges and facilitate access to social media data for journalists, media and researchers, in order to enable thorough investigations, full transparency and secure preservation of historically-important social media data.

The media sector could:
• Redouble their efforts as professional frontline responders to the disinfodemic, through increased investment in fact-checking, debunking, disinformation investigations and continuing robust lines of questioning about responses to the pandemic and the disinfodemic
• Report on the human rights implications of responses to the pandemic, including those impacting freedom of expression, access to information and privacy rights
• Consider mythbusting and investigative collaborations around COVID-19 disinformation with other news organizations and audiences – including internationally. Partnerships with member-based audiences can also be successful.
• Push the boundaries of innovation in the context of newsroom shutdowns and staff shortages by: producing public health information in more broadly accessible and engaging formats, such as infographics, podcasts and moderated online forums with medical experts; and increasing reliance on user generated content (UGC) which has been subjected to rigorous fact-checking.
• Ensure that experiences in a range of developing countries are not overlooked in coverage of the disinfodemic
• Ensure preparedness of staff for safety risks associated with reporting on the disinfodemic (e.g. increased security threats, online abuse, physical attacks and including an emphasis on gender sensitivity)
• Internet communications companies could:
• Intensify transparency about their responses to the disinfodemic (e.g. content takedowns), and provide more financial support to fact-checking networks and independent journalism (especially that focused on investigations targeting disinformation content and networks, and local news organizations which are particularly vulnerable in the crisis)
• Make the sort of investments outlined above with ‘no strings attached,’ and with transparency, in order avoid the appearance of interventions that serve only as public relations exercises
• Focus on curation to ensure that users can easily access journalism as verified information shared in the public interest – especially during the pandemic, but also in the aftermath
• Work to boost the visibility of credible news content and financially compensate news producers whose content benefits their businesses, especially as many news organizations have removed paywalls and other barriers to content access during the pandemic
• Avoid overreliance on automation, especially for content moderation where there is a need to expand the human review process, and transparently monitor the impact of the pandemic-induced staff shortages with a view to solving redress issues
• Apply the lessons learned during the urgent response to the COVID-19 disinfodemic to political disinformation that threatens democracy internationally.

Law enforcement agencies and the judiciary could:
• Ensure that law enforcement officers are aware of privacy and freedom of expression protections afforded to journalistic actors and others who publish verifiable information in the public interest, in order to prevent arbitrary arrests and detentions during the pandemic
• Judicial operators, particularly judges, could pay special attention when reviewing cases related to addressing measures to fight disinformation, guaranteeing that international standards on freedom of expression and privacy are fully respected.

Researchers could:
• Collaborate with journalists, news organizations and civil society groups on projects that help surface and combat disinformation, along with monitoring and assessment exercises focused on responses to the disinfodemic
• Work toward developing new tools to assist journalists, news organizations and other verification professionals with efficient detection and analysis of disinformation, as well as with the crafting and effective promotion of debunks and authoritative information.

The two reports from the research can be downloaded from https://en.unesco.org/covid19/disinfodemic.

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