The Backstory: How we fight the fire of misinformation –

The Backstory is an occasional column from Stuff Editor in Chief Patrick Crewdson offering behind-the-scenes insight into stories and newsroom decisions. You can get The Backstory as an email newsletter.

Misinformation is like a fire. Fight it the wrong way and your well-intentioned efforts can actually fuel the blaze’s spread.

Journalism’s traditional practices can sometimes pour oil on those flames. The US media taught us this on a grand scale during the Trump era. Lies travel faster than truth, and the media’s habit of repeating a claim in order to debunk it can have the perverse effect of amplifying the falsity. Bad faith actors will take advantage of that.

That’s why we’re taking a different approach.

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Misinformation is a cancer of the social media era – so pernicious and pervasive it’s been deemed an infodemic. Covid-19 vaccination misinformation is particularly malignant. If you haven’t fallen victim to it personally, chances are some of your loved ones have.

At Stuff, we’ve dedicated a team of journalists to countering misinformation with trustworthy, accurate, verified information about the vaccines. (Keep reading and I’ll explain how and why it’s trustworthy.)

The result is The Whole Truth: Covid-19 Vaccination, a special project in partnership with Māori Television and the Pacific Media Network, deliberately and carefully constructed to combat misinformation without inadvertently spreading it.

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In videos and text since the project launched two months ago, we’ve covered important topics including the vaccine’s real ingredients, why the vaccine rollout required emergency legislation, and why some vaccinated people will still die of Covid-19.

You might have seen these posts on Stuff, in our newspapers, on the social channels of our partners, or in The Whole Truth newsletter (subscribe for free, and share with a vaccine-hesitant friend!).

The senior journalists working on The Whole Truth describe their approach like this:

Our aim is to provide corrective, contextualising content about the Covid-19 vaccine. Research suggests that the more partisan a topic, the more likely people who identify strongly with one side will double down on their argument even if they are presented with facts that counter it.

As it turns out, sheer repetition of the same lie can eventually mark it as true in our heads. It’s an effect known as illusory truth, first discovered decades ago and most recently demonstrated with the rise of fake news.

Stories about vaccines or climate change shouldn’t give equal space to deniers who think that vaccines cause autism or that climate change is a hoax. There may be two sides to these fights, but they don’t have equal data and facts, which show that vaccines are generally safe and that climate change is real.

For that reason, our posts don’t play into the hands of those spreading misinformation by amplifying it. Instead, we aim to de-emphasise the claim itself and emphasise the news value of the corrective statement.

That approach means you won’t see us repeating specific false claims we’ve seen circulating on Facebook or Twitter. Instead, we’ll drill down to the underlying issue and address it in a more constructive way.

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Jehan Casinader was a good sport, agreeing to be punched by an animated boxing glove.


Jehan Casinader was a good sport, agreeing to be punched by an animated boxing glove.

As Stuff projects director John Hartevelt wrote when The Whole Truth launched, we’re conscious that, worldwide, trust in the mainstream media has fallen. As misinformation and disinformation attack our foundations, we owe it to our audience to provide journalism they can rely on.

Here’s one thing The Whole Truth most certainly is not: a PR exercise for the Government’s vaccine rollout. Stuff has done plenty of reporting scrutinising the promises and delivery of the rollout.

This journalism is entirely independent. The project is built on fact-checking principles, which means we’re committed to being fair and non-partisan (we’re on the side of evidence and facts, not ideology), to using the best-available sources, to following the highest professional standards, to correcting our mistakes clearly and transparently, and to being open about our funding and setup.

We’ve enlisted a panel of experts to advise on the content. You can see their names and credentials down the page here, but they’re not attention-seeking loudmouths trying to make their reckons go viral – they’re a diverse group of doctors and scientists with expertise in the topics we’re reporting on. We draw on other authoritative sources as appropriate – including other health professionals, and medicines regulator Medsafe. On each post, we disclose who had input.

For The Whole Truth, we accepted funding from the Google News Initiative. That goes towards paying the animators, presenters and experts we’ve enlisted. But Google has zero input into or oversight of the content we publish. (You can learn more about Stuff’s funding and operations here.)

It would be naive of us to expect The Whole Truth would quench the misinformation inferno. But we’ve been heartened by feedback from readers saying it’s made a difference in their lives or has helped vaccine-hesitant loved ones combat social media-fueled anxiety with evidence from experts.

Sign up for free to get The Backstory by email. If there’s an element of Stuff’s operations you’d like the inside scoop on, email me with suggestions for future columns.



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