August 12, 2020

Humankind is obviously looking forward to a COVID-19 vaccine. However, the announcement made by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday got journalists and fact-checkers questioning the best way to cover it without amplifying what could be false hope.

While the world is still collecting information about the testing process run in Russia to create what is supposed to be a COVID-19 vaccine, fact-checkers and journalists listed a few tips to correctly and honestly report about it.  

Speaking at an online panel Tuesday organized by the International Fact-Checking Network and the International Center For Journalists, IFCN associate director Cristina Tardáguila urged journalists not to give oxygen to misinformation in their headlines.

“Please make sure that your headline brings the information that testing is still being done, or the international scientific community still has doubts,” Tardáguila said. While the development of a COVID-19 vaccine is welcome news, she warned misinformation about false COVID-19 cures has been rampant throughout the infodemic.

Africa Check editor Lee Mwiti, who also spoke at the webinar, added that awareness of local context is key. 

“For many African countries, colonial — and by extension Western — attitudes towards local cures are still viewed as being dismissive,” Mwiti said, which contributes to misinformation about the efficacy of native remedies. 

“If you can understand the context, it will give you a sense of who could be spreading (misinformation),” Mwiti said.  

Both also spoke about the importance of writing explainers –– informational articles that provide more context on a complex topic. How were other important vaccines approved? How long did it take? What are the steps now for the World Health Organization to review the work done on the Russian vaccine? Does that differ for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?

PolitiFact senior correspondent Louis Jacobson, for example, outlined the three-phase process vaccines must go through before being approved for use by the WHO and the CDC. Vaccines are tested for safety, immune response, and finally efficacy, with each phase involving ever larger groups of volunteers. Jacobson also created this useful infographic that summarizes how far each vaccine candidate has advanced in that process. 

Fact-checkers confronting misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine have been challenged by having to fact-check content about a vaccine that has yet to exist. Phase three trials are still needed to prove the efficacy of any COVID-19 vaccine, and the lack of transparency about Russia’s candidate has left some fact-checkers at a loss. 

“I don’t think anyone can actually know at this point if this vaccine works,” said Alice Echtermann, a reporter with Correctiv, in Germany. Tai Nalon, executive director of Aos Fatos, in Brazil, said that may be by design. 

“This announcement is already built to be accepted as true by anyone who is prone to believe it, and fact-checkers will have a hard time working on it, since it lacks basic data,” Nalon said. 

Ana Brakus, managing editor of Factograf.hr in Croatia, said when it comes to the Russian vaccine, “reliable information is key and to make more clear statements, we need to wait for it.”

PolitiFact’s Louis Jacobson also contributed to this article.

Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering fact-checking and misinformation. Reach him at hmantas@poynter.org or on Twitter at @HarrisonMantas

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
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