COVID-19 Misinformation Playbook (2023)
Published April 24, 2023
This updated COVID-19 Misinformation Playbook from the Online News Association is designed to help journalists and newsrooms quickly pinpoint COVID-19 facts and COVID-19 misinformation. It’s meant to help you think through thorny situations, locate the best experts and think critically about your journalism, particularly as it relates to health and misinformation.
With this 2023 update, our hope is that the guide will not only continue to serve as a resource for COVID-19 coverage, but as a blueprint for how to pull together similar resources for future public health emergencies. Understanding how the journalism community collaborated and what individuals and institutions had reliable information will give journalists a strong starting point.
ONA thanks 3M for its support of the newest edition of the playbook.
In late 2020, a group of reporters and editors from around the globe convened as part of the Online News Association’s Community Circles program. The journalists and editors were strategizing their way through unprecedented challenges to reporting — a climate of abundant misinformation, lack of expertise in sophisticated medical issues, and the imperative to do their work in order to be of service to their communities. Many described the infrastructural challenges of their work. Even when they were able to produce timely stories, their reporting did not always reach their intended audience, as a result of a digital infrastructure that algorithmically disincentivized their work and relayed incorrect information — conspiracy theories, QAnon material — to their audience.
For the first iteration of this resource, we determined which public health agencies had the most reliable information, and we looked to highlight experts providing frequent and reliable social media posts. We looked to our peers to see who was providing excellent coverage while offering transparency about their process.
Through collaboration and talking through some of the complex issues journalists were dealing with, we created a collection of tip sheets, source lists, explainers and examples to help journalists cover a rapidly evolving global pandemic as well as a growing infodemic. We updated this resource in 2023 to help journalists reporting on public health and the long-term implications of the pandemic. Our goal is to help newsrooms find reliable data and connect with vetted subject-matter experts.
- Journalists struggled to convey the scientific uncertainty surrounding COVID-19.
- There are times when we should question advice from public health authorities.
- Our questions don’t always have definitive answers.
- The pandemic story isn’t over.
Key Questions for Journalists
- Is this situation real and important or am I buying into framing of sources who may have ulterior motives?
- Am I confident in the accuracy of my reporting or rushing to get something out ahead of the competition?
- Am I legitimizing something I shouldn’t just by covering it?
COVID-19 Misinformation Playbook Resources
- Long COVID Resources
- Vaccination Resources
- COVID-19 Experts
- Tips for Picking an Expert
- Fact-Checking Tools
- Audience Literacy Resources
- Story Formats to Fight Reader Fatigue
- General Resources
Long COVID Resources
- Long COVID: An Explainer and Research Roundup from The Journalists’ Resource
- USC Center for Health Journalism: How reporters can better cover long COVID
- Association of Health Care Journalists: Long COVID Coverage Tip Sheet
- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: Long-COVID and Post-COVID Info Hub
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Long COVID as a Disability
- Kaiser Family Foundation: Long COVID Implications for Employment and Insurance
- Health Insurance and Long COVID
- Reuters Institute: How did Norwegian newsrooms cover long COVID?
- COVID-19 Vaccine Communication Handbook: A guide for fighting misinformation from SciBeh, a coalition of scientists
- The World Health Organization explains how the different types of COVID-19 vaccines work in their “Vaccines Explained” series.
- AFP News Agency: Understanding mRNA vaccines
- Johns Hopkins: Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe?
- COVID-19 vaccines, insurance and out-of-pocket costs
- Life insurance and the COVID-19 vaccine
- NIH: Women report temporary increase in menstrual flow after COVID-19 vaccination
Have an expert to add to this database? Fill out this form by May 31 to let us know!
- SciLine is a free resource for local news journalists. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions. (USA)
- NPR’s COVID-19 Diverse Sources Database – A list of experts from racially or ethnically underrepresented backgrounds who can provide context and insight on the COVID-19 crisis. (USA)
- COVID-19 experts featured by the International Center for Journalists
- ScienceUpFirst Credible Sources (Canada)
- Mayo Clinic (USA)
- Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (USA)
- UT Southwestern Medical Center (USA)
- University of Chicago Medicine (USA)
- Northwestern University (USA)
- Morehouse School of Medicine (USA)
- Georgetown University (USA)
- McGill University (Canada)
- University of Manchester (UK)
- University of Technology Sydney (Australia)
- University of Sydney (Australia)
- UC Davis (USA)
- University of Washington (USA)
- Dr. Peter Hotez (Baylor, USA)
- Dr. Monica Gandhi (UCSF, USA)
- Dr. Eric Topol (USA)
- Dr. Scott Gottlieb (USA)
- Prof. Devi Sridhar (Scotland)
- Dr. Nahid Bhadelia (USA- White House COVID-19 Advisor)
- Dr. Ashish Jha (USA- White House COVID-19 Response)
- Florian Krammer (USA-Viruses & Vaccines)
- Kizzmekia Corbett (USA)
- Dr. Scott A. Halperin, Director of Canadian Center for Vaccinology, University in Nova Scotia Phone: 1-902-470-8141; Email: email@example.com. (Canada, Vaccines)
- Danuta Skowronski, Epidemiology Lead, Influenza & Emerging Respiratory Pathogens at British Columbia Centre for Disease Control. Phone: 604-707-2511; Email: Danuta.Skowronski@bccdc.ca. (Canada)
- Dr. Christian Drosten, Doctor of Medicine at Charité (Europe’s largest university hospital). Virologist who specializes in Sars-Viruses, helpful source on vaccines Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. (Germany)
- Dr. Ursula Wiedermann-Schmidt, specializes in vaccinology and immunology. University of Vienna in Vienna, Austria. Email: email@example.com. (Austria)
- Elisabeth Puchhammer-Stöckl, Doctor of Medicine, university professor at the Medical University of Vienna in Vienna, Austria. Specializes in genetic diseases and is a helpful source for information on vaccines. Phone: +43 (0)1 40160-65501. (Austria)
- Dr. Alain Fischer, advisor to the French government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Phone: +33 1 44494822. (France)
- Saad Omer, infectious disease epidemiologist with strong expertise in mis/disinformation, social media, and behavioral science. (USA)
- Jean Feng-Jen Tsai, specializes in international law, infectious diseases, globalization & health. Email: email@example.com (Taiwan)
- Catherine Kyobutungi, Executive Director of the African Population and Health Research Center (Kenya)
- Pedro Hallal, government pandemic response (Brazil/USA)
- Mariana Leguia, infectious disease specialist (Peru)
- Hitoshi Oshitani, virologist and public health expert. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (Japan)
- Omai Garner, infectious disease specialist (USA)
Tips for Picking an Expert
What we’ve learned about the role of experts in news and public policy as a result of COVID-19.
- Picking an expert that represents and understands the unique challenges facing your region and community can sometimes be of greater benefit in fighting misinformation than interviewing an expert unfamiliar with your readership. For example, many local public health agencies in the United States started campaigns fighting COVID-19 vaccine misinformation during the pandemic to serve skeptical readers more receptive to information from local public health agencies they are more familiar with.
- Always ask yourself what biases and motivations the experts you’re interviewing might have.
- AFP Health Fact Checking Guide — This video is a crash course in the concepts you’ll need to master to fact check claims related to health and the environment.
- Google Fact Check Tools — Google allows users to fact check results from the web about any topic or person. This tool isn’t COVID-19 specific. You can use it to fact check just about anything.
- The CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance Database by Poynter — This database pulls from fact-checkers in over 70 countries working across more than 40 languages. It collects and documents falsehoods.
- The COVID-19 fact-check library from BBC News Africa — This searchable library of fact-checks from BBC News Africa debunks myths and misinformation about COVID-19 in Africa.
- ViralFacts — A coalition dedicated to debunking health misinformation in Africa.
Audience Literacy Resources
- Infodemic Management from the World Health Organization – A World Health Organization resource on outbreak response and the infodemic. Provides clear definitions of keywords, examples, timely updates and webinars.
- News Literacy Project’s Get Smart About COVID-19 Misinformation – Free resources for educators, students and the general public with links to authoritative sources of health information. Includes tools to help audiences build news literacy skills.
- Trusting News on earning your audience’s trust.
Story Formats To Fight Reader Fatigue
From the Chattanooga Times Free Press
- Five things to know about COVID-19 in the Chattanooga region this week
- Chattanooga region COVID-19 vaccine distribution, testing information and other frequently asked questions
- 10 myths about the COVID-19 vaccine debunked
- Video: How COVID-19 deaths are reported
- How we report on coronavirus numbers
- A weekly Q&A series from the Chattanooga Times Free Press
- WHO COVID-19 Hub
- Kaiser Family Foundation: Global COVID-19 Tracker
- CDC Newsroom
- International Center for Journalists Covering COVID-19 Hub
- COVID-19 resources and best practices from the Public Media Alliance
- Best practices for local newsrooms from the Chattanooga Times Free Press
- Radio Television Digital News Association Guide to COVID-19 Data
- Free data visualization tools: Datawrapper and Flourish
- Vox: What the Media Needs To Get Right About The Next Pandemic
- Reuters Institute: What Journalists Can Learn From COVID-19 Coverage Mistakes
- Scientific American: How the Pandemic Remade Science Journalism
- Journal of Health Communication: Trust in Cancer Information May Have Declined Among Black Individuals During COVID-19 Pandemic
- Springer: COVID-19 Misinformation: A Potent Co-Factor in the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Springer: Citizen Journalism and Health Communication in Pandemic Prevention and Control
- Open Access Academic Research: COVID-19 Lessons Learned and Future Challenges
- Reuters Institute: Pandemic lessons for journalists: seek the truth and reflect on your own power
- Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism: Eight lessons COVID-19 taught me about journalism
Updated by Meena Thiruvengadam in 2023.
The original iteration of this handbook was created in 2020 as part of ONA’s Community Circles program. Participants were Fergus Bell, Smitha Khorana, Allison Collins, Marisha Goldhamer, Hugo Williams, Jennifer Welsh, Tracy Maher, Aashka Dave, Gülin Cavus, Kristen Watson, Dustin Block, Lara Salahi, Douglas Fischer, Sarah Emler, Ned Pagliarulo and Mike Webb. Learn more about ONA Community Circles.