UN-ICFJ Research Highlights Journalism’s Critical Role in Fighting COVID-19 Disinformation

By: Julie Posetti and Kalina Bontcheva | 04/23/2020

This article is part of a two-part series. See the first article here. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the globe, independent journalism has never been more important. Access to reliable and accurate information is literally a matter of life and death. 

New research published by the UN and ICFJ today identifies quality journalism as a major force for identifying and exposing disinformation. And it finds that the ‘viral load’ of disinformation will only grow if journalism continues to suffer death blows inflicted by the pandemic.

In two reports, we argue that ensuring journalism survives the COVID-19 pandemic is a mission-critical challenge for the UN system, governments and others trying to fight what we term the disinfodemic. In the first report we identified nine different themes of the disinfodemic, and four typical formats. In the second report, we critically analyze ten methods of response to the crisis being deployed against COVID-19 disinformation around the world.

Many of the legal and policy steps being implemented are designed to defend public health. But while presented as ‘cures,’ some of these steps could actually hobble the work of journalists and others engaged in vital research, investigation and storytelling about the pandemic - and the disinfodemic that helps fuel it. 

Recommendations for action

In recognition of the risks associated with the responses to the disinfodemic our research identified, we have made 40 recommendations for action aimed at the UN, governments, technology companies, the news media, civil society organizations, law enforcement agencies, and others. Here is a shortlist of 21 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*  


Note: The following research collaborators contributed to the development of this research: Denis Teyssou (AFP), Clara Hanot (EU Disinfo Lab), Dr. Trisha Meyer (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Sam Gregory (Witness), and Dr. Diana Maynard (University of Sheffield).  The dataset on which this research is  based consists of a sample of over 200 articles, policy briefs, and research reports. We systematically searched public databases curated by the Poynter Institute’s International Fact Checking Network (IFCN), Index on Censorship and the International Press Institute (IPI), and First Draft News, along with the websites of news media, national governments, intergovernmental organisations, healthcare professionals, NGOs, think tanks, and academic publications


About the authors

Dr. Julie Posetti is ICFJ’s Global Research Director. She is also a senior researcher affiliated with the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) and the University of Oxford.

Prof. Kalina Bontcheva is Professor in Computer Science at the University of Sheffield and a member of CFOM.

This article is part a two-part series. See the first article here. 

*These recommendations are made by the authors based on their research, but they do not appear in the published UNESCO policy briefs.

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