By Sonni Efron

With conspiracy theories spreading even faster than the COVID-19 virus, journalists face a daunting challenging in reporting on misinformation without feeding fake narratives.

At a National Press Foundation online training, Public Good Projects CEO Joe Smyser released a new digital tool that aggregates social media information from across the United States and flags known purveyors of health misinformation.

Smyser walked journalists through the RCAID tool  to explain how those messages are spread, which sources of misinformation are trending and which are most influential.  (Smyser explains the tool ) The tool tracks misinformation as identified by independent fact-checkers, including the International Fact-Checking Network coronavirus database hosted by the Poynter Institute (see other resources  .)

The challenge for news organizations is to decide what misinformation to report, when, and how, said Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft (bio, Twitter).

Some purveyors of disinformation are eager to draw even negative news coverage, which they see as a strategy for improving their search engine optimization – and often their profits.

“You’re giving them an idea, you’re giving them a hashtag, you’re giving them a community to be part of,” warned Wardle. At the same time, research shows that the public generally wants journalists to report on what is true and what is false, and a failure to cover misinformation leads some audiences to view the media as part of a conspiracy of silence, Wardle said.

Labeling a conspiracy as “nonsense” or people who believe it as “crazy” is unhelpful, she said; providing detailed explanation and context for the facts is helpful.

Donie O’Sullivan (bio, Twitter), who covers disinformation for CNN, said reporting on a conspiracy too early can feed it, although waiting leads to incidents like the recent arson of a cellphone tower in the U.K., allegedly by believers in the baseless rumor that 5-G cellphone networks are causing COVID-19.

“You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t,” O’Sullivan said. “If you do cover it, it will be further weaponized by the conspiracy theorists. … And if you don’t cover it, it’s ‘Why aren’t they talking about this?’”

If journalists do decide to cover a story about misinformation, the most important question for journalists to answer is why, O’Sullivan said. Is a conspiracy theorist is motivated by profit, ideology or publicity? Are they are selling a product, seeking YouTube views or linked to a foreign actor or a state-backed media outlet?

Wardle said audiences are overwhelmed by information about the pandemic, as well as by the changing recommendations from public health officials.

Journalists must be mindful when attempting to debunk information that they do so in a transparent way, the experts said. That includes explaining how and why they chose their sources of information – and acknowledging that medical and scientific information about COVID-19 are evolving as more data are collected.