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COVID-19, disinformation and the media – how can we raise the bar?

12 October 2020
COVID-19, disinformation and the media – how can we raise the bar?

Almost seven months since Europe first went into lockdown, trustworthy information about the COVID-19 pandemic remains as essential as ever. Several countries across the Union are re-applying tighter restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. Governments, researchers and industry are investing hugely into the rapid development of a vaccine.  The COVID-19 journey is far from over and each new phase unfortunately brings new opportunities for disinformation.  

In a recent opinion piece published in several media outlets across the EU, two of Europe’s most important policy makers for the digital world, European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová and Commissioner Thierry Breton, said “the COVID crisis has shown that freedom of expression, access to information and media pluralism can save lives – and are the best way to fight against disinformation”. That’s why it is encouraging to see that people turn to public service media during the COVID-19 crisis. News offered by PSM providers is consistently ranked among the most valued. In 65% of European markets they were ranked the most trusted news brands in 2019. The audience reach of PSM evening news bulletins went up by 2.5 times during the peak days of the crisis. 

Yet we cannot be complacent. As part of our ongoing efforts to combat disinformation, the EBU this week organized a virtual event “Trustworthy information in a pandemic: how can media raise the bar?” We invited representatives of the World Health Organisation, the European Commission, France Télévisions and Vaccines Today to look at the impact of disinformation during the pandemic, the reality of fighting disinformation for media reporting on the pandemic, best practices to combat the problem, and how EU policies and laws can quickly hit the right targets. 

Dr Sylvie Briand, Director of the Infectious Hazard Management Department at WHO, laid out the reality of the direct and indirect consequences of disinformation. That around 500 people died in Iran after drinking methanol that they believed would cure Corona virus is a tragic and direct result of disinformation. Disinformation indirectly damages trust in institutions, experts and scientists which in turn has a negative effect on the social fabric of society. 

Eric Scherer, Director of Innovation and International Affairs at France Télévisions, spoke of five areas where media can raise the bar on combatting disinformation: gaining trust by thorough checking of accuracy; debunking disinformation – France Télévisions has 12 journalists working full-time on disinformation; use of expert scientists and doctors; coming closer to the audience by, for example, giving audiences a voice in the media; and international cooperation.

In terms of public policy, Marie Frenay, Member of Cabinet of European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová, said the European Commission is strengthening existing efforts such as the Code of Practice on Disinformation with a range of new measures. The Communication on tackling COVID-19 disinformation presented in June invites online platforms to do monthly reporting and to promote “authoritative content” by health authorities and professional media on COVID-19. Two new major initiatives are expected by the end of the year. The European Democracy Action Plan will outline the next steps to fight disinformation, protect elections and support media freedom and media pluralism, and the Digital Services Act package will modernise the current legal framework for digital services, addressing the role of online platforms. Ms. Frenay also spoke about the need to have an approach to disinformation that protects freedom of expression. 

Some good media practices were referenced. Marie Frenay called out the Journalism Trust Initiative – in which the EBU participates – which provides a voluntary, self-regulatory mechanism for news media to assess and show their compliance with professional norms. 

Looking ahead to what media can do from now on, Gary Finnegan Health journalist and Editor of Vaccines Today, asked the media to play a role in expectation management around the timing and the efficacy of a future vaccine. Gary also advised media to be careful when debunking myths about vaccines – when this is not approached correctly, it can add confusion rather than clarity. Dr. Sylvie Briand said that vaccines and health literacy is an important topic for media to address and also that media should look at how to give a voice to audiences – which is what attracts people to social media.

The event moderator, Liz Corbin, EBU's Head of News and Deputy Media Director, drew out many more interesting and useful points from the participants. I draw three conclusions:

  1. We need to continue this conversation on a regular basis. It was extremely useful for us to hear the perspectives of the different players in this debate, and we have taken notice of their requests to us.
  2. Combatting disinformation requires cooperation. International cooperation. Cooperation between institutions, experts, media, scientists, the vaccines industry, the public… we will not solve this problem on our own.
  3.  Ensuring that high quality, trusted news is easy to access and to find is the best antidote to this infodemic. That means reliable funding for public service journalism, freedom to be able to do our journalism without restriction and the adoption of meaningful EU rules for global online platforms enabling future generations to have continued access to trusted news and information is absolutely essential. 

Many thanks to our guest speakers and our moderator for this insightful and useful discussion.


Relevant links and documents


Wouter Gekiere

Head of Brussels Office