This week, we’re taking an in-depth look at how fact-checking works, using a recent example from the Reuters Fact-Checking team. More specifically, I’ll be taking you through the analysis of a recent piece of misinformation that made its way around the web in the United Kingdom.
In late August, several posts regarding COVID-19 vaccination guidelines for those who are pregnant were circulating in the UK. The posts claimed the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) secretly updated their guidance to remove their recommendation for pregnant people to get the COVID-19 vaccines.
Here’s an example of one of the posts (not featured on Reuters but related) from even earlier than August:
To start their analysis on the possible misinformation, the team at Reuters found the primary source that fueled the fervor surrounding the issue. Generally speaking, a primary source is the original record of information of some kind.
In this case, the primary source (where the information in question is found in context) was a public MHRA document that outlined the regulatory approval process for the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
After identifying the initial source, Reuters looked at the specifics of the issue. The document explicitly said, “Women who are breastfeeding should also not be vaccinated.”
To a Twitter user who shares a tweet without understanding the full situation, the wording the MHRA document uses could seem pretty damning. Information out of context can be dangerous, though, and that’s how Reuters took the next step in their investigation.
In this situation, context is absolutely crucial. While the document says it has been updated as recently as Aug. 16, 2022, the update refers to a part of the report that does not have to do with pregnant women. The section regarding pregnant women has been unchanged since Dec. 2020, a year when the implications of vaccinated pregnant women was still being studied for bare minimum safety risks.
But, it’s not even a case of outdated information. The purpose of the MHRA document in question is to report on the assessment of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines at the time of Dec. 2020. Essentially, it’s a primary source that outlines the process at a specific time in history. Of course it won’t include recent guidelines—it’s a report based on the past.
Beyond finding and contextualizing primary sources, Reuters also reached out to the MHRA directly. In their analysis, the fact-checking site quotes an MHRA spokesperson who not only clarifies the misinterpretation, but also provides a link to their most up-to-date guidance on COVID-19 vaccinations.
It’s important to verify information with well-established sources. The MHRA, a department in the UK, is an official government source.
Finally, Reuters concluded their fact-checking process with a brief summary outlining the verdict reached—false, in this case, as the quotes being shared were taken out of context.
Reuter’s fact-checking process for this piece of misinformation was relatively straightforward. All it really took to understand the true meaning of the phrasing used was to put it in context. However, in this digital age, people don’t always take the time to stop and check before they retweet something.
Is it possible for you as a media consumer to differentiate fact from opinion on the fly? Sure! Let’s take a look at two examples of media and analyze their credibility.
Fact v.s. Opinion
As we analyze two pieces about COVID-19 vaccinations and pregnant people, it’s important to start with a “slow news” approach. Slow news is a concept discussed by the News/CoLab meaning as a media consumer, we should stop and take a beat before sharing news.
We’re going to be taking a look at a piece by the BBC News article published on Sept. 1, 2022 called “Covid: Pregnant women targeted with false vaccine claims.” Broadly, this piece discusses the misinformation about the MHRA document we talked about earlier.
I also want to look at a piece in the Life and Style section of The Guardian titled “I took the Covid vaccine while pregnant – let’s not pretend it’s an easy decision.” Published on Oct. 5, 2021, this piece is slightly outdated. It’s not about misinformation, but it discusses the actual decision of getting a COVID-19 vaccination while pregnant.
Our first step in a method called SIFT (used to help media users break down and understand content they interact with) is to stop and examine our sources.
If I were thinking about sharing either of the pieces I’m about to discuss on social media, the first thing I would do is stop and do a little more research before hitting the retweet button. The truth is, we don’t know anything about these articles yet. We aren’t in a position to share anything until we know more.
Investigate the Source
Step two is learning more about the sources of these pieces. For the BBC article, we know BBC News is the British Broadcasting Company’s digital news division (you can read more about their news offerings here).The BBC article itself tells us a little bit about the journalist, Rachel Schraer, who is a “health and disinformation reporter.”
Schraer’s Twitter account confirms the same thing–and I even found a tweet she shared about the the misinformation surrounding the MHRA document. We know she specializes in misinformation, so that knowledge adds some credibility to her reporting.
In addition to our knowledge about the reporter, we can see that the BBC piece is under the news site’s “Health” vertical, which in this case (because BBC is a certified news site), means we are dealing with a factual story.
Let’s look at our second piece. The Guardian is also a verified news site.
Ankita Rao, the journalist who wrote The Guardian’s piece, seems to have written for them up until May 2022. She wrote a variety of pieces, ranging from celebrity news to politics. This piece specifically is under the “Life and Style” section, which is kind of vague.
Since we can’t figure it out right away, let’s read the first few lines to decide if this is news or opinion.
Immediately, we can take note of the first person usage in the article. To me, the use of first person is an indicator that we are dealing with an opinion piece.
Going a few more lines in, it becomes apparent that the author is inserting themself into the story. Two paragraphs in, Rao says “Deciding to get the vaccine that same month was not easy – even as a former health reporter accustomed to deciphering medical journals.”
We now know Rao is writing an analysis of her decision and sharing it with the public.
Because the piece is expressing someone’s opinion, it can be difficult to navigate how to determine credibility. Let’s continue our analysis.
Find Better Coverage
Step three is to find better coverage– for this, we can look at the latest information about COVID-19 misinformation and updated recommendations for pregnant people. This information helps us to determine if the articles we are reading reflect the issues accurately. Essentially, we are asking if these pieces are credible.
If I wanted to find better coverage for the BBC piece, I would actually take a look at the Reuters fact-check analysis we discussed earlier. It offers a break down (as I explained) about how and why the posts were deemed misinformation.
I wish the BBC News piece linked to a few more outside sources aside from other BBC articles, but it does link to a couple journal articles about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines for pregnant people. Backing up claims about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines with clear evidence is crucial in establishing credibility.
For our opinion piece, let’s find some facts. Here’s a link to an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine about preliminary findings about mRNA COVID-19 vaccines in pregnant women. In the scientific article’s conclusion section in the abstract, it states that preliminary research did not find any issues regarding pregnancy and vaccines.
Not only does The Guardian piece discuss those findings, it also links to 12 outside sources. For an opinion piece, I think clearly stating sources (and having them accessible) is invaluable and adds credibility.
Trace Claims to Original Context
Our last step in the SIFT method is to contextualize, like we did with the Reuter’s piece earlier.
For the BBC News piece, we know that the MHRA document was out of date (see above), but it was being used for a specific purpose. The missing context was the article’s main claim.
For the opinion piece, Rao’s biggest pitfall is some of her sources. Kim, a source unidentified for privacy reasons, could really be anyone (Check out the SPJ’s piece on anonymous sourcing). Because we don’t know about Kim, we can’t trace her back to anything.
It is up to you as a reader to determine how much you trust Rao’s judgment on reporting with unnamed sources. For me personally, I trust her work enough to reshare it if I had to (because of the links and credibility referenced above), but I would clearly state that Rao’s piece is an opinion article.
I personally have come to the conclusion that both the BBC News article and The Guardian opinion piece are credible. That being said, I would not share the BBC News piece when I could just as easily share the Reuter’s fact-check, which I think gets us closer to the primary sources.
With the opinion piece, I might share it, but again, I would state that the article is an opinion piece. It may be well-reported with credible links and information, but it is still expressing opinions of people.
As you continue to consume media regularly, I’d encourage you to stop and double check your sources before you share. Stopping misinformation from hitting your feed only takes a minute– and it’s more important than ever.