Reporting with accuracy in the midst of the coronavirus

27 April 2020

Fake news

In the United States, the term "fake news" became currency in its frequent use by Donald Trump during his tenancy as President as he denounces large sections of the mainstream media for publishing it. It is "news," which is largely deliberately false, consisting of disinformation spread also and often via social media. But while the President frequently calls out "fake news" in the traditional media in his daily briefings, the accuracy of what comes out of the White House is also being debated. And when it comes to inaccurate information about health and medical matters amid the coronavirus crisis, that is immensely worrying. Any misreporting on information such as infection rates and death tolls is irresponsible. Fake news about rules and remedies to keep us all safe, can be devastating.

Health warning

Taken to the extreme, there have been reports that in Arizona, a man has died after he ingested a cleaning fluid containing chloroquine phosphate, seemingly in an attempt to ward off Covid-19. Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, antimalarial medicines, but which are also contained in some such products, have been talked about by the President as a potential cure for the virus.

Concurrently, in France, the study of 480 ill patients at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris - led by a Professor of Internal Medicine - was published this week on pre-publication site Qeios. The study is entitled "a nicotinic hypothesis for Covid-19 with preventive and therapeutic implications." Whilst most European media outlets reported a finding of the study that smoking 'may' lower the risk of contracting Covid-19, not all went on to report on the study's similarly key finding that tobacco users were 'likely' to face graver consequences if they developed the disease.

Graver consequences indeed would be faced by anyone foolish enough to ingest detergent, surely. Yet only on Friday, the media is reporting – and this is not fake news - that in his briefing, President Trump commented on the apparent vulnerability of the virus to both light and detergent, and queried whether an "injection" of disinfectant into the lungs might work. Medical professionals and disinfectant manufacturers have been quick to denounce this as extremely dangerous.

Accuracy is 'paramount'

Reporting with accuracy and the avoidance of fake news and disinformation has never been more crucial. While the mainstream media continues to take the President to task by fact-checking his briefings, as the President denounces the media for what the fake news that he accuses them of publishing, in the United Kingdom, a press regulator is stressing the "paramount" importance of accuracy.

In the UK, a large number of media organisations adhere to the self-regulator IPSO's Editors’ Code of Practice. This sets out the rules that newspapers and magazines regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation have agreed to follow. Under Clause 1 of the Editors' Code, the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text. It also states that a significant inaccuracy should be corrected promptly and with due prominence.

IPSO have released a statement reiterating that Clause 1 applies to the reporting of Coronavirus (the full post can be found here):

'This is important, because while some simple factual inaccuracies are easily spotted and rectified, in a rapidly evolving health crisis, fluctuating containment strategies and contradictory scientific reports can confuse editors as well as readers, and the correct position needs to be on record.'

As COVID-19 spreads globally and reporting breaks quickly, readers need facts and trustworthy information more than ever. It is highly welcomed that IPSO have voiced that accuracy is 'paramount' in these unprecedented times. The extent to which irresponsible publishers will be taken to task for breach of these guidelines remains to be seen. But data out is only as good as data in. It is important for the good of all during this pandemic, that those who spot the publication of inaccurate information – whether it is published in error or by design – should bring it to the attention of the publishers, seek the assistance of media lawyers to obtain corrections where the publisher will not engage or will not correct, and ultimately the assistance of IPSO may be required.

Of course, it is also incumbent upon the traditional media and all aspects of social media operating to provide important information to us at break-neck speed, to take special efforts to ensure that it is accurate. With great power comes great responsibility. There is no doubt that the media, and social media, have great power; they need to operate with even greater responsibility during the difficult days of this pandemic.

Sunlight and disinfectant

Former American Supreme Court Justice Louise Brandeis introduced into the legal lexicon, the phrase "sunlight is the best disinfectant," arguing in favor of government transparency to hold it to account to the people. "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman." Publicity and reporting are essential in any democracy, provided they are accurate; publicizing sunlight and disinfectant as a remedy for medical diseases, is not. Accuracy, on the other hand, as IPSO has indicated, is "paramount,"; and that should be the standard adhered to by anyone letting loose information into the wider world – be they presidents, the public, or the press.

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


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