Brazilian president Bolsonaro’s coronavirus test shows how media can misinform, too

March 13, 2020
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

In the search of the next great scoop regarding the new coronavirus, journalists must leave behind — once and for all — the he-said, she-said journalism. Articles based on re-reporting other articles must end. Reporting and data should remain the pillars of journalism to keep credibility and prevent situations like the one we saw Friday morning.

Between 9 and 11 a.m. Eastern, The Guardian (United Kindom), CNA (Taiwan) and Fox News (United States) “reported” that the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, had tested positive for the 2019 coronavirus and reminded audiences that he had met with U.S. President Donald Trump in Florida earlier this week.

The avalanche of photos showing Bolsonaro and Trump shaking hands in Mar-a-Lago flooded WhatsApp channels and social media platforms. Some of those images brought captions suggesting that the U.S president needed to be tested for COVID-19 as soon as possible, just like Vice President Mike Pence, who also had met with Bolsonaro.

The Guardian and CNI, however, published their articles based on a single story — a note published by columnist Leandro Mazzini at O Dia, a very well-known Rio de Janeiro-based newspaper.

At 9:55 a.m., the headline at O Dia’s website was right to the point: “Primeiro exame de Bolsonaro testa positivo para coronavirus” (meaning “Bolsonaro tests positive on his first analysis,” translated from Portuguese).

In the article, Mazzini didn’t show the results or reveal his sources. But that didn’t keep The Guardian from reposting the story with the following headline: “Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro ‘tests positive for coronavirus'”.

From there, the story spread, with near-copied-and-pasted versions at websites like Business Insider and CNA.

The fact that, in fewer than two hours, critical information regarding the health of two presidents crossed the globe based in one article, written in Portuguese, and published by one website, is definitely scary for a fact-checker. Journalism should be much more than copying and pasting.

At 10:54 a.m. Eastern, things got worse. O Dia softened its headline without explaining why or leaving a correction. “Primeiro exame de Bolsonaro teria testado positivo para coronavirus.” (“Bolsonaro might have tested positive on his first analysis.”.) A major step back. And media started to realize that, well … maybe they should have made some calls to fact-check the claim with Bolsonaro’s family.

Then Fox News published an article saying its reporters had contacted Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of the Brazilian president, and had obtained confirmation that Jair Bolsonaro was COVID-19 positive.

But the he-said, she-said journalism struck once again. About 40 minutes later, the official Bolsonaro pages on Facebook and Twitter denied the confirmation and said the test results were negative.

Take a look at how all of this looks like on Guardian’s live coverage page for COVID-19 and think for a second about whether this generates more confusion and misinformation.

Let’s take the opportunity this is giving to journalism to remind us to maintain and raise our standards of quality and credibility.

Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org.

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  • Dear Yara, I have copied and pasted here paragraphs 10 and 11. Please spare a few minutes to actually read the article and you will easily see that I did say that Fox News talked to Eduardo Bolsonaro and also that, later, the information about the covid19 test was retracted by the President on social media. Also, let me share with you that I am Brazilian. The information about my fact-checking unit, based in Rio de Janeiro, can be found in the very last paragraph. In bold. Let me repeat: In bold. Thanks for stopping by.

    Paragraphs 10 and 11:
    “Then Fox News published an article saying its reporters had contacted Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of the Brazilian president, and had obtained confirmation that Jair Bolsonaro was COVID-19 positive.

    But the he-said, she-said journalism struck once again. About 40 minutes later, the official Bolsonaro pages on Facebook and Twitter denied the confirmation and said the test results were negative.“

  • Since you are on the topic of misinformation, you could do your research and get to the source of this story, which is that president Jair Bolsonaro’s own son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, told Fox News that his father had a preliminary positive test. Which he later denied after a second test came back negative. The article were not based on the report from “O Dia”, but from Fox News. If you had REALLY done your research, you would know that the Brazilian president thrives on fake news, was elected solely on the spreading of fake news, refused to come to a debate or give an interview to a legitimate media outcome for the whole of his campaign. Your article fuels the machine. Which, I believe, is your intention.

  • Great article.