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September 9, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:34am

Tall stories: News media’s role in spreading misinformation during Covid-19 charted

By Aisha Majid

Of the more than 5,600 distinct misinformation narratives on Covid-19 circulating the world in 2020, news media helped spread at least one in eight – according to new Press Gazette analysis

A database of 5,613 false storylines about the virus from Princeton University’s Empirical Studies of Conflict Project (ESOC) found that in the case of 737 story lines, media outlets helped circulate the misinformation.

The list of misinformation narratives was compiled by researchers who monitored media reports, social media and fact checks to identify false stories emerging in different regions.

The data does not suggest that the media outlet in question was necessarily the source of the misinformation, although this was sometimes the case such as for stories by outlets in countries where the press is controlled by a repressive state. Some media outlets have, however, played a role in amplifying misinformation about Covid-19 – particularly early in the pandemic when accurate information was hard to come by.

While UK publications played a comparatively small role in spreading covid misinformation (16 false storylines) they did report misleading narratives such as: eating bats started the outbreak and tall people were twice as likely to get the disease.

“[Media misinformation] is huge,” says Jacob Shapiro, a Princeton professor of politics who led the research. “One does not have to look any further than the influence of One America News, RT and Fox in the United States to see that the problem is significant.”

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The outlets named in the fact checks and media reports in the database come from more than 80 countries. They include mainstream news providers such as Fox News, Daily Mail and India Today, state-owned broadcasters from countries such as Russia and Iran and many smaller sites, including fringe and untrustworthy sites purporting to be news outlets.

Outlets from Russia, the US, China and Turkey were most often mentioned in the database’s list of fact-checks and stories. Together outlets from these four countries were identified as helping circulate over 200 misinformation narratives.

In Russia, where misinformation has been a longstanding issue in a largely state-sponsored media landscape, narratives helped attack the country’s opponents and highlight the country's superior science and preparedness while in the US false news was shaped by the extreme political polarisation surrounding Covid-19.

Research by Sweden’s V-Dem Institute further found all four countries to be among those where the media landscape took a turn for the worse during the pandemic.

When it came to the motive behind the false narratives, of those identified as being circulated by a media source, 23% (166) were intended to undermine governments or international organisations such as the World Health Organisation. Examples include a story in Russian state-backed news provider Sputnik alleging Covid-19 to be an American bioweapon and a report in the Daily Caller (which was subsequently amended) which initially said that US health experts had been wrong in predicting a Thanksgiving surge in Covid.

The main narrative of almost a third (30%) of false narratives similarly focused on spreading false information about government  responses to the pandemic.

While Covid-19 misinformation tends to be thought of as mostly a problem on social media, traditional media, while producing fewer false stories than fringe outlets, has played a role in amplifying false claims.

A study last year by researchers at Cornell University's Alliance for Science which looked at every English-language article in traditional media published between January and May 2020, found that of 1.1. million articles that mentioned Covid-19 misinformation just 16% were "fact-checking" in nature. This suggested, said the study, "that the majority of Covid misinformation is conveyed by the media without question or correction."

Yet while media misinformation during the pandemic is a significant issue, the nature of false content circulating in mainstream media is not as outlandish as on social networks, according to Shapiro.

"My sense is that it tends to be a bit less extreme than what circulates on social media, but that difference is larger in countries with a longer tradition of button-down traditional media," he says.

One such country is the UK where the researchers said that most false news spread by mainstream media is due to errors in reporting academic findings. This echoes an earlier analysis by Press Gazette in April that found that the most common type of error in the UK mass media's coverage of Covid-19 had been misreporting or misunderstanding of scientific research and studies.

ESOC data also suggests that most misinformation in the UK is spread by individuals. Media were noted as participating in the spread of 16 of 144 unique false narratives where the primary country where the misinformation spread was the UK.

While most of the false narratives circulated by media captured in the database date from earlier on in the pandemic, media misinformation continues to be a concern. Last month, Press Gazette reported on a survey by Ofcom that revealed while more people now trust mainstream media than earlier on in the pandemic, some four in ten (41%) people are still struggling to identify what was true or false about coronavirus.

But although misinformation continues to circulate in media sources, Shapiro says that on the whole that the media is increasingly stepping in to uphold standards of veracity in reporting on the pandemic.

"The thing which I find most encouraging about the media reaction is the large-scale effort around the world in which reporters and citizen journalists worked together to push back against the steady tide of Covid misinformation in every country we looked at," he says.

Professor Sarah Evanega, who led the Alliance for Science research is similarly hopeful:

"Our ongoing research into COVID-19 vaccine misinformation suggests that unchecked misinformation within "top tier traditional media" outlets and news-related blogs (news outlets and news blogs with significant reach and influence such as the New York Times, FOX, Washington Post, NPR, the Guardian, etc) was a smaller minority of coverage during later periods of pandemic discourse in media. While this isn't a direct comparison, it is hopeful considering the amount of unchecked misinformation discovered in our original study and the influence that top tier outlets have."

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