A Journalist’s Guide to Navigating Disinformation When Covering Breaking News
When news breaks, journalists provide an essential—and sometimes, even life-saving—service to the public, providing time-sensitive information and bringing context to what can be confusing, stressful, or transformational events. It requires flexibility, resilience, and a keen ability to think on your feet. This is no easy task, even under the best of circumstances. But when bad actors take advantage of rapidly developing events—and the heightened emotions surrounding them—to spread disinformation, journalists must take extra care to protect themselves and the public from false narratives.
The following guidelines—in addition to the fact-checking and verification techniques you already use—can be helpful for detecting and combating disinformation when you’re covering breaking news.
1. Anticipate potential areas of vulnerability for disinformation and prepare in advance.
If you suspect news may soon break on a particular issue—or as news is breaking in the moment—take a step back and consider how bad actors could capitalize on this event to influence public opinion. Be prepared to arm your audience, and yourself, with the context necessary to fight against possible manipulation or disinformation.
- Ask yourself who might benefit from spreading false or misleading information about this event and why. What issues might be particularly complicated or leave gaps that disinformers may try to fill?
- What aspects of the story might incite deep-seeded emotional reactions in your audience? If you have time to plan in advance—for example if you’re expecting a verdict in a high-profile trial—use social media to ask your audience what questions or concerns they have about the impending news. Review trends that may be circulating in chat groups your audience is known to frequent like Nextdoor or Reddit. Take note of their concerns, including any falsehoods that may be trending, and be ready to address and/or debunk these concerns.
- Consider “prebunking” the story. Before the news breaks, provide your audience with facts and context that may help protect them against subsequent mis- and disinformation. For example, if the event concerns a possible indictment, provide context about the indictment process—i.e., what steps are required to issue an indictment, how does the process differ from other criminal proceedings, and what are the potential next steps after an indictment is issued. Help to educate your audience on the types of tactics bad actors may employ to manipulate the story and spread false narratives.
- Whenever possible, refer to subject matter experts who can confirm or explain important contextual information, such as a medical or legal expert, climate scientist, historian, or community leader. Work with experts to develop explainers on elements of the story that may be new to your audience or that involve complex legal, scientific, or technical issues. If you have sufficient time, ask the experts to be ready with talking points for your reporting.
2. Trust Your Instincts.
Disinformation is designed to capture our attention by eliciting a strong visceral or emotional response, such as fear, outrage, or empathy. Take for example, a recent AI-generated photo that appeared to depict an explosion near the Pentagon, a deepfake video that slowed down Nancy Pelosi’s speech to make her appear intoxicated, or a photo of a child crouching in the rubble that was purportedly taken in the aftermath of a 2023 earthquake in Turkey but was actually taken in Ukraine in 2018. The emotional responses these images elicit can temporarily impair our ability to think critically. As a result, we may share or amplify disinformation before considering its credibility. If you have a particularly strong emotional reaction to the content, or if the content appears to be playing on vulnerabilities, trust your instincts and investigate further.
3. If breaking news is coming in through social media, ensure the source account is credible and legitimate.
Before reposting or reporting on content shared on social media, analyze the poster’s profile, including their username, photo, bio, and the accounts they follow. Check to see if the poster follows accounts affiliated with extremist groups or other groups known to spread mis- and disinformation or if they frequently tag journalists or public figures to attract attention. If so, be cautious of sharing or reporting on the content without further fact-checking and corroborating evidence.
While mis- and disinformation is often spread by live individuals, some disinformation is spread by automated bots designed to appear and behave like humans. If you suspect that the content you see on social media may be coming from a bot, check for some of the following indicators:
- A blank or sparse bio with no easily verifiable information in the profile, e.g., no job title or workplace.
- A recently created account that already has thousands of followers.
- A feed predominantly consisting of political or sensational posts (including re-shares of prominent political voices) with little to no content about the account holder’s personal life, interests, or local community.
Bot Sentinel is a helpful online tool for analyzing accounts and posts on X, formerly known as Twitter. It ranks accounts on a spectrum from “Normal” to “Problematic.” For a step-by-step guide on how to use Bot Sentinel, check out our resource on Detecting Disinformation.
And for more practice identifying automated accounts, check out the Spot the Troll Quiz developed by the Media Forensics Hub at Clemson University.
4. Use contextual analysis and online tools to verify the authenticity of photos and videos.
Not all images claiming to depict current events are legitimate. Some are miscaptioned, misidentified, manipulated, or drawn from prior events. Of course, it’s always best to confirm the accuracy of an image with the original source, an eyewitness, or another trusted source. But if news is breaking fast, or you’re having difficulty tracking down a source, here are some tools to help you spot potentially manipulated or misleading images:
- Scan the photo or video for timestamps that may reveal the date and time the image was captured. Bad actors often try to pass off old photos and videos as depictions of current events.
- Check for any geographical markers that may help you identify whether the photo or video was captured at the claimed location. Look for street signs, building names, or other landmarks and use a tool like Google maps, or Bellingcat’s OpenStreetMap Search Tool to help verify their location.
- Look for corroborating contextual clues. Does the image show people with umbrellas walking through the rain? Check the weather report for the purported location of the image at the date and time it was allegedly captured.
- Use online tools like Google Reverse Image Search, TinEye, or RevEye to gather information about the original source of a photo, or InVID to analyze and gather contextual information about a video. Many of these tools have browser extensions that allow you to analyze images without leaving your current browser. Our Disinformation Defense Toolkit offers step-by-step instructions on how to use these tools.
If you’re concerned a video may be a deepfake, pay particular attention to the face—eyes, skin color/smoothness, lip movements—as many manipulated images contain altered facial features. If the video features a public official or purports to be taken at an official event, check to see if there are any official statements or press releases accompanying the video.
5. Use live updates responsibly and effectively.
Live updates can be an effective tool for getting critical, time-sensitive information to the public—particularly in cases where public safety may be at risk. Because live updates can consist of as little as one sentence, they can be used to share discrete, verified elements of a story even as you’re vetting the full piece. But be careful to resist the urge to “feed the beast.” Only provide information that’s been vetted and don’t “hint” at other aspects of the story that are yet unverified.
6. Intentionally craft your reporting to debunk disinformation and avoid unwittingly amplifying it.
Reporting on disinformation, or events that are primed to elicit disinformation, presents a unique challenge—one that is intensified by the time-sensitive nature of reporting on breaking news. As you write, edit, and publish your story, keep these best practices in mind:
- Be precise when crafting your headlines. Readers may share articles before actually reading them (or reading them fully), making the headline crucial to advancing credible information. Confirm that the headline accurately and unambiguously relates the details of the story. For example, “Court blocks executive order; govt will appeal” provides a more fulsome and informative account than “Executive order found unconstitutional.”
- Choose your words carefully. Consider how a bad actor may attempt to use words, phrases, or images in your story to spread disinformation or discredit your reporting. Be careful about using language that could potentially be accusatory or inflammatory, recognizing the potential for eliciting negative or polarizing reactions.
- When covering isolated incidents—for example, one-off election errors or civic engagement demonstrations in a given city—be clear whether or not they seem indicative of larger trends. Report the denominator to give people a sense of scale, i.e., are incidents taking place in 3 out of 10 polling sites or 3 out of 10,000? Be explicit, and repeatedly use denominators for readers to understand the scale of any given issue being reported.
- Be transparent about your reporting choices. If you called out mis- or disinformation in your reporting, explain why and cite your sources.
- If reporting on a photo or video you’ve discovered to be fake, manipulated, misidentified, or miscaptioned, be sure to watermark any portion of the image you share to make clear that it is false and to prevent further manipulation from bad actors. In your reporting, clearly describe how the image or context has been manipulated rather than solely labeling it as manipulated.
- Keep sociocultural context top of mind in your reporting. Some communities are directly targeted by purveyors of disinformation, and often these are the same communities—communities of color, rural and low wealth communities, diaspora communities, etc.—that are underserved by credible news outlets. Be mindful that history affects the way people consume information, and some groups may harbor feelings of distrust in traditional authority figures or the government. When reporting on events targeting historically marginalized communities, refer to guidance from journalists associations, including:
- Asian American Journalists Association’s Guidances & Resources
- Indigenous Journalists Association’s Reporting Guides
- National Association of Black Journalists’ Style Guide
- National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Cultural Competence Handbook
- NLGJA’s Stylebook
- Trans Journalists Association’s Stylebook and Coverage Guide
- Take care not to sound dismissive of those who may have questions or doubts about what is happening. Use your reporting as an opportunity to empathize and educate.
- If disinformation is swirling (or is likely to), get credible information and reporting to your audience through as many channels as possible: your news outlet, your personal social media accounts, on Reddit, TikTok, or any other platforms you know your audience to frequent.
- If you feel comfortable doing so, consider responding to thoughtful questions or comments on your stories.
- If you discover any errors in your reporting, correct them as soon as possible. Take time to explain why and how the error occurred and, if applicable, what steps you or your newsroom will take to help prevent a similar situation in the future