Misinformation megaphone: Does news coverage of unscientific, hateful rhetoric amplify it?

Click to play video: 'Fact or Fiction: does news broadcast of unscientific movements amplify misinfo?'
Fact or Fiction: does news broadcast of unscientific movements amplify misinfo?
Some say the line between adequate coverage, and too much coverage, is very fine. – Feb 16, 2022

It’s largely understood that journalists have an ethical obligation to report on movements that impact, and interest, the public.

That sometimes includes a duty to cover that which may not align with the scientific consensus, such as the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protesting COVID-19 mandates. Despite unvaccinated truckers representing a minority of the population (12,000 to 15,000 individuals, or 10 to 15 per cent of truck drivers, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance), the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists says people need to know their pleas.

“There’s a significant public interest to understand why these people are protesting,” Brent Jolly told Global News over Zoom.

“It’s important to have the voices of those who are frustrated.”

But the situation has significantly evolved.

As the convoy seems to have dominated every news headline since its descent on Ottawa on Jan. 29, copycat protests have popped up in many parts of the globe.

Story continues below advertisement

In an almost paradoxical scenario, some are wondering whether news reporters had a hand in amplifying the minority’s movement — and inadvertently inspiring others along the way — in their bid to cover and debunk some of the claims being made.

Health officials working to immunize racial minorities in Toronto are already worried about the attention the convoy has gotten from the news, on social media and from funding donations.

“I heard on the radio a few members of the Black community echoing some of the positions that were articulated at the protests,” said Dr. Akwatu Khenti, chair of the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity.

“That ‘COVID is overblown. COVID is just like the flu. More people have problems with the vaccine than they do with COVID.’… I don’t want to see this idea gain considerable support as public policy when we have ways to go, especially with specific racialized communities whose members can’t work from home, have two to three jobs (and) not enough sick days.”

Khenti says the task force has made great strides in vaccinating Black people in Toronto, especially with first and second doses. But they’ve hit a wall with booster shots and children’s vaccinations.

Story continues below advertisement

With a history of traumatic experiences and exploitation in health care, Khenti says it makes sense his community is hesitant. And while he says the task force respects everyone’s right to protest peacefully, they are now worried the unscientific rhetoric surrounding vaccines echoed by the protesters could risk more racialized individuals turning down inoculation.

The latest health and medical news emailed to you every Sunday.

Could the news inadvertently disseminate misinformation while reporting on it? 

While some protest organizers had previously said they do not agree with the racist, anti-Semitic and hateful rhetoric presented in some of the protests, they are by and large advocating for the removable of public health measures that are backed by science — and they’re doing it loudly, on the news.

“It’s a really fair question: ‘How much oxygen is too much oxygen?'” Barbara Perry, the director for the Centre on Hate, Bias, and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, told Global over Zoom.

A fair question, and a dangerous one, says the director of The Disinformation Project, due to its plausibility.

Ahmed Al-Rawi says journalists can certainly implicate themselves and spread misinformation while covering any kind of minority movement, not just the truck convoy.

Story continues below advertisement

“Anyone can create or manufacture misinformation, right? And if they get attention by the news media, they’ll probably be encouraged to do more,” said the assistant professor at Simon Fraser University.

“So you could give more oxygen to a conspiracy theory that is very minor.”

It’s a debate that long predates COVID-19.

In 2020, some American news outlets refused to broadcast Trump press conferences that were littered with baseless information, for fears it would delude those listening.

Some have wondered whether the coverage of the “Yellow Vest” movement in France inspired Canadians to take to the streets as well in 2019.

As of right now, there isn’t much research to prove the public is being introduced to minority movements or to misinformation through news coverage of it. In fact, Al-Rawi says it would be difficult to determine where someone first heard about a movement and was roped in.

But there have been several studies that examine whether the repetition of misinformation while debunking it may accidentally strengthen the falsehoods by making them more familiar.

Story continues below advertisement

A 2019 paper found “no evidence” that “rebutting science denialism in public discussions” backfires.  In other words — researchers say debunking works.

And that is exactly what Jolly says journalists need to stick to in order to avoid accidentally spreading false or hateful sentiments.

“The key thing here is to properly contextualize (the event),” said Jolly.

“I think that’s something that a lot of news organizations have evolved with, particularly around misinformation coming out in the States around 2016.”

83 to 87 per cent of Canadian truckers are vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

An Ipsos poll last year found that 80 per cent of participants backed mandatory vaccines for public servants.

Out of the 78 million vaccines administered nationally, 36,857 adverse reactions were recorded as of Feb. 11. That is 0.047 per cent of all doses.

And — 46 per cent of those polled by Ipsos say they “may not agree with everything” the truck convoy says or does, but that their frustrations are “legitimate and worthy” of sympathy. More than half of participants — 54 per cent — say those protesting do not “deserve any of our sympathy.”

Story continues below advertisement

Being selective on what journalists give air time is also key in preventing misinformation, said Al-Rawi.

Before sharpening their quills or turning on their cameras, reporters should take a hard look at how many people are engaging in a movement or conspiracy theory, and whether or not it’s even worth investigating. Some conspiracies he says, like claims the earth is flat, are not worth the time of day.

Either way, Perry says those who see unscientific, hateful or extremist rhetoric being discussed on the news would have seen it on social media anyway.

Why? Because of the longevity of some of the movements, and the fact that they may magnify underlying frustrations that resonate with people around the world.

“I think there are a number of factors that play into this, not just journalists,” she said.

“The role that the media can play, though, is not to amplify the most extreme voices, but to really unpack the grievances that are there. What are the truckers protesting about? How did this start?”

Click to play video: 'Supply chain misinformation follows ‘Freedom Convoy’ headed to Ottawa'
Supply chain misinformation follows ‘Freedom Convoy’ headed to Ottawa

Sponsored content