Coronavirus round-up: ‘alternative facts’, authoritarian reactions, and journalists expressing uncertainty

Our personal weekly selection about journalism and innovation.

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Edited by Marco Nurra

Trump wrongly suggests sunlight could help cure coronavirus. On Thursday, President Donald Trump added to his list of dubious or inaccurate coronavirus-related medical claims, wrongly suggesting at a White House briefing that sunlight could possibly be used to treat people who have the virus. Trump also issued a false denial when asked why he has stopped promoting the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment, incorrectly saying, “I haven’t at all.” He referred to how “we started with a broken test” without explaining that the faulty initial test was created during his presidency, this year.

The right-wing media’s rallying cry: Anti-lockdown edition. Asking whether the current anti-lockdown sentiment is ‘real’ or manufactured is both a hard question to answer, and in some ways a false one: conservative ‘movements,’ these days, never exist independently of the right-wing media echo chamber.

Anti-quarantine protests are dangerous and weird. Please don’t make them seem more normal than they are. “When approaching anti-quarantine protests, the most important thing to remember is that none of us are outside the story. We drive & energize the story based on how we respond. We have so much to lose; so we have to be so careful,” writes Whitney Phillips. “First, spreading images of the protestors—particularly when the image’s frame is filled with people—can create the illusion of a much larger and more sophisticated movement than actually exists. This builds on the observation made by Renee DiResta, who noted in an interview that groups like the one responsible for the shelter-in-place protest pages on Facebook use media manipulation to “simulate the appearance of a much larger movement.” We inadvertently help them in that effort when we plaster images of their protests across social media. It’s easy to accuse Fox News of abetting in this way; it’s less comfortable to acknowledge that vehement opposition also functions as a recruitment tool for some audiences. Many journalists have been careful to couch the size of these protests, sharing images of sparsely-filled public squares or wider-lens angles on the protests. But even these more responsible framings can have potent downstream consequences.”

Amplifying the coronavirus protests. “People waving signs — or guns — and chanting in groups at city hall is obviously a news story, but how much attention should we be paying to them? By doing so, we are giving them the oxygen of amplification”, writes Mathew Ingram.

Fox News keeps inviting TV doctors on air who say crazy things. Fox News has displayed a knack in recent weeks for inviting prominent television doctors on its air who make absurd comments that ignite controversy. Since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, the conservative network has hosted Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Drew Pinsky, and Dr. Phil McGraw on its programs. While the three household names have all had success in daytime television, each of them has previously faced serious criticism from medical professionals. Moreover, none of them are infectious disease experts. 

The WHO wants to fight the coronavirus ‘infodemic.’ Here’s how. Officials who are trying to manage the coronavirus pandemic need to worry not just about responding medically; they need also ensure the public is accurately informed — fighting what the World Health Organization’s leader calls an “infodemic.” As Sylvie Briand, who leads WHO work in communicating about the virus, says, every epidemic brings with it a “tsunami of information and misinformation.” Managing that tsunami is essential for public health. If people get accurate information and trust it, they are more likely to act on it for the greater good, despite possible hardship.

What role should newsrooms play in debunking COVID-19 misinformation. In the UK, people are setting cellphone masts on fire. The reason: Some people believe 5G networks spread the coronavirus. It’s just one example of why, when conspiracies pass a tipping point, newsrooms must work collectively to push out strong debunks.

Have you become a personal fact-checker to your family and friends? The pandemic is an opportunity to expand media literacy among those who we love. It is also a chance to show that there is no magic in fact-checking. This job is much more about attention and perseverance.

Coronavirus: public trust is an issue for news media but what does it mean? “Every day ‘the media’ is criticised for being lackeys of government, ignorant and elitist. At the same it is accused of being overly aggressive, playing ‘gotcha’ games and chasing too hard after sensational story-lines. I can find disturbing examples of how journalists have failed — sometimes wilfully — sometimes under the pressure of imperfect information, deadlines and old habits. I can also give you a million examples of reporters risking their lives to tell the front-line stories, newsrooms valiantly keeping their shows on the air and some outstanding expert analysis and critical questioning,” writes Charlie Beckett.

Chinese agents helped spread messages that sowed virus panic in U.S., officials say. These amplification techniques were alarming to officials because the disinformation showed up as texts on many Americans’ cellphones, a tactic that several of the officials said they had not seen before.

Three ways to counter authoritarian overreach during the coronavirus pandemic. As the world grapples with the spread of Covid-19, we see a wide range of individual national responses to the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, a global pandemic is a political opportunity for leaders to expand state powers and cement authoritarian rule. Civil society, journalists, and academics have long documented opportunistic expansions of state power during periods of unrest and instability. Crises allow “would-be authoritarians an escape from constitutional shackles,” say political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. In just a few short months, Covid-19 has emboldened leaders to both expand and centralize state power at an unprecedented pace.

Hong Kong police arrest Next Digital founder. Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who founded local newspaper Apple Daily, is arrested by police officers at his home. Police arrested at least 14 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists on charges of joining unlawful protests last year calling for reforms.

More than 300 people have been arrested for “spreading COVID-19 falsehoods”. Some countries justify the arrests as a crack-down on the spread of misinformation, but some human rights advocates are warning these aggressive measures are aimed at silencing criticism and controlling the virus narrative.

Turkey’s Erdogan clamps down further on media amid coronavirus crisis. The Turkish president seems to be using the coronavirus crisis as a pretext to get rid of the few critical media outlets left in his country. Opposition politicians and journalists fear a new spate of censorship.

The constant shifts of the coronavirus pandemic may be making journalists more comfortable expressing uncertainty. On April 4, a Los Angeles Times story about the varying effects of the novel coronavirus contained a remarkable paragraph: “One thing to keep in mind before we continue: It is possible that the information you read below will be contradicted in the coming weeks or that gaps in knowledge today will soon be filled as scientists continue to study the virus.” The paragraph was remarkable because the Los Angeles Times was admitting that its information was incomplete and subject to revision. News organizations, intent on projecting authority and knowledge, rarely admit their fallibility or lack of omniscience. But in a period of uncertainty and almost constantly changing news, what are the obligations of journalists in making clear that their information is provisional?

What will newsrooms look like after the pandemic is over? The Covid-19 crisis may prompt a once-in-a-generation transformation of the way journalists work. Have your say on how the sector will respond to challenges by completing a quick, anonymous survey.