Science and health fact-checkers put pandemic claims under a microscope

Many fact-checkers have refocused their work almost exclusively on coronavirus news, making a dent in the unprecedented levels of misinformation

September 15, 2020
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

In the face of a global pandemic, science and health fact-checking journalists are having their moment.

Over the past two decades, political claims and widespread hoaxes and rumors have dominated fact-checking journalism. Snopes began debunking online rumors in the 1990s. Other pioneers in the field, including Factcheck.org, PolitiFact and The Washington Post, started with a public policy focus — a niche that flourished around the world in the tumultuous political climates of the late 2010s.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has expanded the fact-checking landscape. Every day, new, questionable reports regarding vaccine development, evolving public health guidelines, and symptom monitoring multiply online. A recent study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene identified COVID-19 misinformation distributed in over 87 countries.

Fact-checkers of all sorts have joined forces through the International Fact-Checking Network’s #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance to share and translate their reporting to try to address the public’s confusion. But in this global predicament, the skill set and knowledge that science and health journalists bring to fact-checking has proved essential.

“I think this pandemic has underscored how important science is to our everyday lives,” said reporter Jessica McDonald of FactCheck.org’s SciCheck channel. “If this has not made that clear, I’m not sure what will.”

Sites that specialize in fact-checking claims about medicine and science report dramatic increases in audience and page views as the coronavirus swept across the globe. “Across the board, there was a big growth of interest in March and April,” said Wendy Zukerman, host of the “Science Vs” podcast.

Many fact-checkers have refocused their work almost exclusively on coronavirus news, making a dent in the unprecedented levels of misinformation, explained Le Détecteur de Rumeurs journalist Pascal Lapointe.

This pivot was possible because a good number of fact-checking organizations saw the need for this specialized fact-checking before much of the public had even heard of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Among the hundreds of fact-checking projects tracked by the Duke Reporters’ Lab, more than half a dozen are dedicated to science and health reporting. They include:

SciCheck (U.S.)

In 2015, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center launched SciCheck as a new channel for FactCheck.org. The project specifically focuses on science and health claims, generally made by U.S. politicians, that have the potential to affect policy decisions.

With grants from the Stanton Foundation, Facebook and Google, and support from Annenberg, the project now employs McDonald full time. She covers everything from the science behind the latest environmental protection act to blood donation policy.

“We essentially function like a normal news outlet, where if we reach out to an expert, we do so as a journalist … asking for advice,” McDonald said.

Le Détecteur de Rumeurs (Canada)

The Quebec-based news agency Agence Science-Presse created an online science fact-checking column, “Le Détecteur de Rumeurs” (The Rumor Detector), that followed a similar path as SciCheck.

From its beginnings as a crowdsourced venture in 2016, Le Détecteur de Rumeurs has grown to a full-time operation with one dedicated reporter and multiple freelance journalists generating nearly daily content. Grants from the Quebec government and Le Bureau de Coopération Interuniversitaire, a private organization that unites all Quebec universities, support the project.

“Our target has never been the specialized public. … We want readers who have never been interested in science,” said editor-in-chief Pascal Lapointe.

Posted on the project’s website, fact-checks on topics ranging from homeopathy to astrophysics are rated as Vrai ou Faux (true or false) accompanied by a short explanation.

With those precedents set, science and health-based fact-checking projects emerged among traditional media outlets, established fact-checking organizations, and independent science journalists across the globe.

Science Vs (U.S., by way of Australia)

Australian science journalist Wendy Zukerman began the science podcast series “Science Vs” to debunk science misinformation in pop-culture spaces in late 2015. After an initial series of episodes for the Australian Broadcasting Company, the country’s taxpayer-supported public media outlet, Zukerman took the podcast to New York-based Gimlet Media, a commercial podcasting producer. The show has since amassed a large following on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, which now owns Gimlet.

With help from a team of science journalists, ex-researchers and fact-checkers, the podcast gracefully intertwines funny anecdotes (and lots of puns) with dense research studies, creating a new brand of approachable science.

“Fact-checking and science has this association with broccoli and being hard to listen to,” Zuckerman said, “but then people will listen to the show and say, ‘Oh, this is cool, this is applicable.’”

Metafact (Australia)

In 2018, the Australian science fact-checking project Metafact launched a website using a crowdsourcing model. Anybody can submit claims, which are then reviewed by multiple verified Ph.D.s, researchers and medical specialists. Within hours, the project assigns an aggregate score to each claim — a percentage of Negative to Affirmative based on the expert reviews. So far, 10,000 unpaid experts in over 350 fields have contributed to the Metafact consensus fact-checks.

The site also publishes monthly “science-based guides” (available to paid-subscribers) that dive into large topics, varying from the safety of vaccines to health claims about turmeric. These reviews are also verified by crowdsourced experts and provide a longer, more in-depth explanation than the site’s consensus fact-checks.

The optional paid subscriptions for access to additional content, as well as an online merchandise store and a Kickstarter campaign, fund Metafact.

Ben McNeil, Metafact’s founder, does not fully prescribe to the traditional definition of a fact-checker as someone who rules a claim true or false (or somewhere in-between). It is difficult to qualify a science claim as intrinsically true or false, “because in science, there is a likelihood to everything. From gravity to climate change, it is not a binary,” he said.

Health Feedback (France)

Health Feedback, a project by Parisian nonprofit Science Feedback, approaches fact-checking with a “hybrid” methodology that also relies on the expertise of doctors and scientists.

Established in 2018, Health Feedback uses a process developed two years earlier for its environmentally-focused sister site, Climate Feedback. Both sites publish in-depth fact-checks written by verified researchers (they must have a doctorate and proven history of relevant publications). The researchers’ fact-checks are accompanied by shorter explanations written by Science Feedback editors, who share the expert input with a more approachable style of writing.

The scientific credibility of claims are categorized using a color-coded tagging system, rating the credibility of a claim from “very high” to “very low,” with specific concerns like “flawed reasoning” and “lacks context” describing the core issue of a false claim.

The project is supported by reader donations as well as grants from other third-party companies, including Facebook and The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society.

The Healthy Indian Project (India)

The Healthy Indian Project, a privately-operated and grant-funded fact-checking project based in West Bengal, follows a similar model. Founded in 2019, the site publishes health-oriented fact-checks with the help of an internal team of journalists and an external support team of medical experts in a variety of fields.

“We started The Healthy Indian Project with the aim to disseminate information, especially in regional languages,” said CEO and founder Sudipta Sengupta. “We do fact-checks for the people who do not have access to a doctor.”

The pandemic has expanded interest in health misinformation in low-resource areas of India. Recently, the project receives “30 messages on our WhatsApp tip line daily” and now maintains multiple WhatsApp groups, each focused on specific diseases, such as diabetes and vitamin deficiency. These groups generally have around 250 members and use regional languages that are less commonly used in mainstream journalism.

Salud Con Lupa’s Comprueba (Peru)

Comprueba (“Verify”), a project of Peruvian health news site Salud con Lupa (“Health With a Magnifying Glass”) is one of the most recent additions to the science and health fact-checking space. It is financially supported by the International Center for Journalists and a grant from the Poynter Institute and Facebook Journalism Project as a winner of the 2020 Fact-Checking Innovation Initiative.

The project partners with research scientists and medical doctors at the Epistemonikos Foundation, a group that writes systematic reviews of health-related research. The site also collaborates with science journalists from many Latin American countries, including Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and El Salvador.

In the coming months, Comprueba plans to expand its platform to include a crowdsourced contribution page with claims and fact-checks, said Fabiola Torres, founding director and Knight Fellow of the ICFJ. Through a verification system that takes into account education and expertise, the site will publish fact-checks written by any qualified scientist/journalist.

These outlets are not alone. Other established fact-checking projects have been adding science-related categories and channels over time, and even more have followed in the six months since the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 was a pandemic.

As these and similar efforts continue to grow and evolve and new projects form, the scope of fact-checking similarly evolves to address the issues of the times.

Amelia Goldstein is a student researcher for the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University, where she has helped maintain a database of fact-checking projects around the world.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified name and location of The Healthy Indian Project. We have corrected this mistake and regret the error.

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