The Sift: Trump’s COVID-19 briefings | Coronavirus rumors | How platforms are responding

  News Literacy Project
View this issue in your browser.
For decades, White House briefings and press conferences, covered live by cable news channels, have been a source of important information for the American public, especially in times of crisis. But as the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold across the United States and around the world, an unprecedented debate has erupted in journalism circles over whether they are still serving that purpose. In recent days, a number of media critics have called for news outlets to stop their live broadcasts of President Donald Trump’s daily briefings on the pandemic, saying that he is misinforming the public and endangering people’s lives.

It’s not just, as has been widely noted, that he initially downplayed the seriousness of the situation, or that he has offered misleading information about the effectiveness and availability of an unproven drug treatment. On March 21, Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media columnist (and a former public editor at The New York Times), described the briefings as a substitute for the campaign rallies Trump can no longer hold, saying that that he is using them for “self-aggrandizement,” “media-bashing” and “exaggerations and outright lies.”

“Business as usual simply doesn’t cut it,” she wrote. “Minor accommodations, like fact-checking the president’s statements afterward, don’t go nearly far enough to counter the serious damage this man is doing to the public’s well-being.” Now, she added, “lives are on the line.”

Two days earlier, Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor who has long called for news outlets to stop covering Trump’s press conferences, used his PressThink blog to publish “an editor’s note ‘announcing’ a new policy” — that reporters would be “switching to emergency mode” by not covering the president’s public statements live, not attending briefings or background sessions, considering whether the president’s remarks should be amplified, and focusing on what he is doing, not on what he is saying. (At the end of the post, Rosen clarified that he is “not a news organization with a White House press pass,” that no news organization has put this “emergency mode” into practice, and that the post was part of his ongoing discussion of “the problem of covering Donald Trump.”)

While acknowledging criticisms of the president’s performance at these events, Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute, a journalism education organization, took a contrary view: “Trump’s news conferences must be aired live and in their entirety,” he wrote. “It’s critical to see what Trump and his team are doing and how they are thinking even if we don’t like or agree with it. When it comes to the president and his actions, it’s necessary that the media does not shield the American people and, in effect, protect Trump from the public.”
Discuss: Do you think news organizations should provide live coverage of the president’s public statements, regardless of their accuracy? Why or why not? Do public statements about the current pandemic, which is a public health crisis, fall into a special category and warrant different treatment by the press? If news organizations refuse to cover White House press briefings, is that censorship? Why or why not? If the president makes false statements, does the public have a right to know?
NO: The video in this post does not show military vehicles being shipped to San Francisco in advance of a declaration of martial law. YES: It was uploaded to YouTube in 2013. YES: The U.S. military uses freight trains to ship vehicles and other types of equipment from one location to another.

Note: As shown by recent additions to BuzzFeed News’ running list of misinformation about COVID-19 and the strain of coronavirus that causes it, similar rumors — often featuring photos or video of military personnel or equipment — were widespread last week.

Resource: Google Trends has a dedicated coronavirus dashboard showing the questions that have been searched for most frequently. It also lets you explore specific search topics related to the pandemic. Interest in the questions “What is the Stafford Act?” and “What is martial law?” has recently spiked. (The Stafford Act authorizes, among other things, emergency federal disaster assistance for state and local governments.)

NO: President Donald Trump did not say that as a result of COVID-19, “people are dying who have never died before.” YES: This fabricated quote went viral last week on Facebook and Twitter. YES: T-shirts with the fabricated quote, the false attribution and the date the words were allegedly spoken are being sold by The Chatty Chimp, a satirical “online newspaper” whose “About” page warns readers, “Don’t believe anything you read on our site.”
YES: Soap, including antibacterial soap, is effective at destroying SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19, because it dissolves a membrane (or “envelope”) of fat that holds each particle of the virus together. NO: Antibacterial medications — antibiotics — do not work against viruses.
NO: Taking a warm bath will not prevent you from getting COVID-19. NO: Breathing the steamed air in a sauna (or from a bowl of hot water) or the hot air produced by a hairdryer will not kill the coronavirus. NO: Eating bananas does not does not help prevent infection from the virus.

Note: As a response to these and other false preventive measures and cures for COVID-19, the World Health Organization has created a collection of “mythbuster” graphics that you can share online.
NO: These photos were not all taken within the city limits of Venice, Italy. YES: One of the photos was taken in Venice and two were taken in Burano, about seven miles from the city. The location in the other photo couldn’t be immediately determined. NO: These photos do not prove that water pollution levels in the greater Venice area have been reduced recently. YES: The canal water in Venice has been clearer since Italy instituted a strict quarantine. NO: It is not due to a reduction in pollution. YES: It is due to a reduction in boating activity, meaning that the sediment at the bottom of the canals is not being churned up. NO: The swans pictured (in Burano) did not “return” to the canals because the environmental conditions there had improved. YES: The swans are regularly seen in the Burano canals. YES: There is evidence that pollution levels are temporarily lower in cities around the world due to the reduced amount of human social and commercial activity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Note: Rumors that elicit feelings of hope often circulate in connection with tragic or stressful events.

Related: “Fake animal news abounds on social media as coronavirus upends life” (Natasha Daly, National Geographic).

Idea: Use this Twitter thread by Eliot Higgins, the founder and executive director of the open source investigations collective Bellingcat, to teach students how to use simple geolocation tools to verify the authenticity of photos online. Challenge them to geolocate one or more of the photos themselves (before you share Higgins’ thread with them) or to create their own geolocation challenge for their classmates by using a photo they find on social media.

Resource: The Check Center, included in NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom, includes tutorials and fact-checking missions for students. (Registration is required for teacher or parent access; NLP is currently waiving license fees for individual student accounts for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers and parents engaged in distance learning or homeschooling as a result of school closures can apply for access here.)
In the last week, both Twitter and Facebook have announced additional measures to combat the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes the disease.

Twitter announced on March 18 that it would remove coronavirus-related content that goes “directly against guidance” from public health and government authorities, such as false and dangerous preventive measures or “cures” and claims that the virus is a hoax designed to harm the economy. Two days later, Twitter Support tweeted that it was working to “verify” the accounts of credible experts in public health. (One critic has urged the company to create a designation for this purpose other than its standard blue checkmark, which signifies only authenticity, not credibility.)

Also on March 18, Facebook, through its subsidiary WhatsApp, announced two initiatives to combat misinformation about COVID-19: a $1 million donation to the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and the launch of the WhatsApp Coronavirus Information Hub, where users can find credible health information. (The company also created a similar information center on Facebook.) In addition, WhatsApp is testing new features that enable users to search the internet for additional context about messages that are forwarded to them and is adding localized chatbots (including one run by the World Health Organization) to help guide people to credible information. The platform is also featuring the accounts of 18 IFCN members where users can forward messages for verification.
Note: On March 16, Facebook, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit and YouTube issued a joint statement expressing their commitment to “working closely together on COVID-19 response efforts.”
Also note: Facebook flagged a number of credible posts about the coronavirus as spam last week, but later explained that this was due to an error in an automated anti-spam system. The company also noted that it was working with a reduced content moderation staff because of COVID-19.
About 3 in 10 (29%) of U.S. adults think that the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was either developed intentionally or made accidentally in a lab (not true, researchers say), while 43% think that it most likely developed naturally, according to Pew Research Center survey findings published on March 18. The survey also found that 62% of respondents said they think that the news media has exaggerated the risks of the current outbreak — “greatly,” according to 37%, and “slightly,” according to 25%.

In addition, attitudes about various aspects of the pandemic — and news coverage of it — differed along partisan lines, the survey found: Republicans gave news coverage of COVID-19 lower ratings than Democrats did and were more likely than Democrats to say that news organizations exaggerated the risks.

During the time the survey of 8,914 American adults was conducted (March 10-16), Pew’s Amy Mitchell and J. Baxter Oliphant wrote, “the number of confirmed cases in the United States increased from about 650 to over 3,000, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, President Donald Trump announced a ban on travel to the U.S. from European countries and many universities announced closures or remote classes.”
Discuss: Do these survey findings surprise you? Why or why not? How do your thoughts and beliefs about this pandemic compare with these findings? What types of news coverage are least helpful? What types are most helpful?
Idea: Have students review the Pew Research Center survey results. Then have students interview adults (aged 18 and older) in their household, asking them how closely they are following news about COVID-19, how well they think the media has covered the pandemic, whether they think the media has exaggerated the risks of COVID-19 and whether they have seen at least some made-up news about it. They should also ask the adults for their political affiliation and age. Compare these responses with the survey findings.

Denunciations over associating COVID-19 with a geographic location or ethnicity, such as calling it the “Chinese virus,” continued last week, despite the World Health’s Organization’s longstanding guidance (PDF) that diseases should not be identified in ways that could stigmatize geographical locations or groups of people. In a March 19 statement, the Asian American Journalists Association (supported by other journalist groups) cited that guidance in its condemnation of “harmful language” that “persists.” According to an analysis published March 17 by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab, media organizations’ use of ethnic or geographic labels for the current strain of coronavirus dropped dramatically after WHO published its recommended naming convention — but the terms spiked on social media because of the use of such language by President Trump and other politicians. 


Discuss: How could associating COVID-19 with a geographic location create difficulties? Did early news coverage of the coronavirus use problematic terms to refer to the virus? Was WHO correct to issue the guidance not to connect the virus to a specific geographic location? Why or why not?
Your weekly issue of The Sift is put together by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams) and Suzannah Gonzales of the News Literacy Project.
You’ll find teachable moments from our previous issues in the archives. Send your suggestions and success stories to [email protected].
Sign up to receive NLP Connections (news about our work) and Get Smart About News (news literacy tips).