Coronavirus round-up: covering science at dangerous speeds, Facebook’s Oversight Board, and the dangers of partisan framing

Our personal weekly selection about journalism and innovation.

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Edited by Marco Nurra

Covering science at dangerous speeds. “Speed can be a good thing, if researchers understand the context. But it also means that reporters eager for scoops are seizing on what sound like important and impressive findings that are likely to soon be meaningless. For decades, the embargo has functioned as an artificial speed limiter on when a lot of research reached the public. In exchange for prepublication access—usually a matter of several days, to provide time for reading and reporting—journalists agree to a particular date and time for the release of news. Such embargoes (which are common to journalism more broadly) are ubiquitous in science and medical reporting. […] One could argue that a pandemic like COVID-19 shifts the calculus on the benefits of embargoes, but that only holds if reporters use the additional time to digest findings and call experts unrelated to the study for comment. And the reality is that journalists don’t have as much time as they need.”

There is money behind COVID-19 hoaxes and predators are profiting from despair. On March 17, Luiza Bandeira, a research assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, found a set of Facebook pages and profiles that were oddly similar. All of them were created in South Africa within days of each other. All included scary and misleading coronavirus content. And they were all selling masks. Financial motives drive the distribution of falsehoods.

5G conspiracy theories fuel attacks on telecoms workers. The widespread belief that 5G is dangerous has also led to attacks on infrastructure. In just one weekend in early May, at least 20 mobile phone masts across the UK are believed to have been torched or otherwise vandalised. Many did not even contain any 5G infrastructure, but were hosting conventional 4G technology, including the UK’s Emergency Services Network, the 4G-based system that powers radios for the police, ambulance services and fire brigade.

Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger on why he is joining Facebook’s Oversight Board. “Why have I agreed to join? The global Covid-19 crisis we’re currently living through exemplifies the mortal dangers of a world of information chaos. Societies and communities can’t function unless there is some consensus around facts and truth. And the coronavirus is, in some ways, merely a dress rehearsal for the even greater challenges of climate change. At the same time, there is a crisis of free expression — with oligarchs, populist leaders, and some corporations trying to delegitimize and repress the voices of those who would challenge them. Finally, there is a crisis of journalism: both the economic model which sustains it, and in the generally low levels of trust much of it enjoys. Facebook sits at the heart of these interlocking crises — and it’s not hard to see why it’s tied itself in knots trying to solve even some of them. […] To address this, it needs independent, external oversight.”

Coronavirus: The seven types of people who start and spread viral misinformation. Conspiracy theories, misinformation and speculation about coronavirus have flooded social media. But who starts these rumours? And who spreads them? BBC’s Marianna Spring has investigated hundreds of misleading stories during the pandemic. Here are seven types of people who start and spread falsehoods: joker, scammer, politician, conspiracy theorist, insider, relative, celebrity.

The problem of seeing the pandemic through a partisan lens. When it comes to the coronavirus story, partisan framing is once again serving us poorly. The cost of the coronavirus is not felt equally in our society, and the response of our leaders—in politics, business, and other spheres—demands sharp scrutiny and criticism, unblunted by folksy bromides about the American spirit. Rather, the problem here is that the partisan lens flattens out nuance, turning complex issues into simple dichotomies. Media coverage, of course, often ignores nuance for reasons that aren’t at all political. But partisanship invariably makes the problem worse—by entrenching misleading binaries, and aligning them with conflicting tribal identities.

As COVID-19 threatens press freedom, we must protect journalists under pressure. COVID-19 pandemic has intensified existing pressures on journalists and created new threats. It has exposed every single weakness in an already fractured business model, and has highlighted how trust in journalism is key to the media’s future. The Journalist Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has brought some of the best reporters from around the world to Oxford to look at the challenges facing the media and tackle them head on. Maryana Drach writes about her colleagues in Ukraine, arrested and jailed for their work. Consuelo Dieguez and Daniela Pinheiro speak out about how Jair Bolsonaro is systematically dismantling a free press in Brazil. Soma Basu and countless other Indian journalists, especially women, have come under sustained and vicious online attacks designed to intimidate and silence.  

Threatened, maligned, jailed: Journalism in the coronavirus pandemic. Populism, political power grabs and financial trouble: Christian Mihr of Reporters Without Borders tells DW that journalists around the world face growing threats in the age of COVID-19.

Journalist in Rohingya refugee camp describes bracing for coronavirus without access to internet. Ro Sawyeddollah has lived in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, since he fled Myanmar along with thousands of other ethnic Rohingya in 2017, where the U.N. found that Rohingya live under threat of genocide. Since late 2019, the Bangladesh government has cut off internet access to Cox’s Bazar and blocked refugees from obtaining SIM cards, citing a black market in the camps to evade regulations that only Bangladeshis with national identification cards are allowed to obtain SIM cards and access the internet. There are over 800,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, according to the United Nations.

The New York Times reached 6 million paid subscribers as ad revenues plummeted in the pandemic. The Times reached that magic number after netting an incredible 587,000 new digital subscribers in the first quarter of 2020, but the coronavirus has drastically cut into its advertising revenue. The Times reports overall ad revenue of $106.1 million — a drop of more than 15% from the previous quarter. Print ad revenue was down nearly 21% and digital ad revenue was down nearly 8%. And the really troublesome prediction: In a statement, Times president and CEO Mark Thompson said ad revenue could fall by as much as 55% in the second quarter. That’s a drastic decrease. “Nonetheless,” Thompson said, “we believe that the company will emerge from this global crisis with a distinctive and valuable advertising revenue stream to complement a digital news subscription business, which is now by far the largest and most successful in the world.”

How news organizations are asking for audience support in the time of coronavirus. Many news organizations with paid subscriptions are removing barriers to their coronavirus coverage as a public service, and putting that content in front of their meter or paywall. Pairing messaging about the free coverage with a subscription offer is a great way to remind readers the value of journalism while prompting them to support their work with a paid subscription. But in the meantime, the dramatic decline in advertising revenue has forced many publishers to lay off or furlough staff, cut newspaper print days, or reduce their coverage.

What experts say works for combating coronavirus misinformation. When it comes to combating misinformation, research shows that it’s more effective for authoritative figures to present accurate facts early and routinely alongside misinformation, rather than to try to negate every piece of misinformation after-the-fact by labeling it false or by calling it out as false.

Here are the winners of the 2020 Pulitzer Prizes. Usually held at Columbia University in New York City, due to the coronavirus pandemic this year’s Pulitzer announcement took place in Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy’s living room and was livestreamed via YouTube.