For the past few months, I’ve seen a higher number of complaints, as well as increased anger, about COVID-19 coverage, especially related to mandates.
It has been at times almost incoherent: shouting on phone calls, all-caps vitriol toward Globe writers and mainstream media in e-mails (almost always including accusations of “fake news”), and even physical threats to some journalists. Most of those complaining don’t seem to be readers, and they are reacting to headlines they saw on social media. While it’s a small number of people, their tone is nastier than I have ever seen.
Their anger seems to be based on misinformation that has spread widely on social media and right-wing media, mostly from the United States. They argue falsely that vaccines don’t work and that their freedom has been taken away.
In Ottawa, last weekend during the police action to clear the illegal blockade, we saw some in the crowd attacking TV reporters and camera operators, pushing one from behind and spitting on others. TV crews and photographers are most vulnerable since they need to be near the action and are highly visible.
Now that the protests and, let us hope, the associated anger have calmed down, we should consider why this happened and how journalism needs to rethink what it does to combat disinformation.
Disinformation can be used by people wanting power or money or even followers on social or traditional media. I think there should be more reporting on who is leading disinformation campaigns and profiting from them, and why. We need to shine a brighter light with tougher questions on these campaigns.
In one case, Fox News contributor Sara Carter tweeted to her 1.3 million followers that a woman had been killed by police horses at the Ottawa protest. This was not true, but the lie took off around the world.
It was hours before she deleted the tweet but by then it had been retweeted by others. She admitted later in a post that “the reports I was given earlier yesterday from sources on the ground that someone may have died at a hospital during the trampling was wrong.”
A basic principle of journalism is that you do not report on rumours. It can be difficult in breaking news, especially at a chaotic scene that involves police action, to confirm rumours. But reporters must go slow and ensure the facts are accurate before publishing anything, even a tweet.
So how does traditional media counter this? By calling out disinformation and holding those who spread it accountable when possible and through good reporting that tries to understand anger and mistrust but doesn’t amplify disinformation.
Striking that balance is what the the Globe’s Ottawa bureau set out to do during the protests. Reporters went out days before the police action and sought out people to understand their grievances. They avoided the front line of the protest and instead tried to talk to those who wanted to explain their actions.
Print and digital reporters are able to slip in quietly and find more reasonable people to talk to, away from the bright lights of TV cameras.
Globe coverage made it clear that the protesters were misinformed about vaccines, the police action and their constitutional rights, and that some adhered to conspiracy theories, but it was important to hear their voices.
One article, by Erin Anderssen and Marieke Walsh, noted that while “the demonstration was ostensibly about vaccine and mask mandates, protesters interviewed by The Globe over the past three weeks often spoke of broader issues, including a deep distrust of government and the media, and a genuine fear that the country is becoming less free.”
The reporters also noted that while protesters disavowed the presence of swastikas and the Confederate flag in the first week, “signs comparing the vaccines to the persecution of Jewish people by the Nazis remained to the end.”
There are deep fissures in this country and most of the Western world right now, and we must understand what is behind it. That doesn’t mean just taking the word of either protesters or government officials, but instead, pressing and challenging to understand the full picture.
Journalists must call out disinformation and those deliberately spreading lies, and they must work to uncover why.
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