Checklist: Navigating Disinformation When Covering Breaking News

Covering breaking news is challenging under any 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. 

Along with fact-checking and verification techniques you already use, refer to this checklist to help you navigate disinformation when covering breaking news. For more context and details, check out our full-length guide and recommendations here.

Anticipate areas of vulnerability for disinformation and prepare in advance.

  • Ask yourself:
    • Who might benefit from spreading false information about this event and why?
    • What issues might leave gaps for disinformers to fill? 
    • What might incite deep-seeded emotional reactions in your audience?
  • Review trending topics in chat groups like Nextdoor or Reddit. Be ready to address and/or debunk these concerns.
  • Consider “prebunking” the story. Provide your audience with facts and context to help protect them against subsequent mis- and disinformation. Educate them on the tactics bad actors may employ to manipulate the story and spread false narratives.
  • Develop explainers.
  • Seek out subject matter experts to confirm/explain important context.

Disinformation preys on intense emotions. Trust your instincts.

  • If you have a particularly strong reaction to content, or if it appears to be playing on vulnerabilities, trust your instincts and investigate further. 

If breaking news is coming in through social media, ensure the source account is credible and legitimate.

  • Analyze the poster’s profile (username, photo, bio, and accounts followed):
    • Does the poster follow accounts affiliated with extremist groups or other groups known to spread mis- and disinformation?
    • Do they frequently tag journalists or public figures to attract attention?
  • Check for indicators of bot activity:
    • Blank or sparse bio with no easily verifiable information in the profile.
    • Recently created account with thousands of followers.
    • Lots of political or sensational posts with little to no content about the account holder’s personal life, interests, or local community.
  • Analyze the poster’s X (formerly Twitter) handle on Bot Sentinel. See our Detecting Disinformation guide for step-by-step instructions on how to use this tool.

Use contextual analysis and online tools to analyze photos and videos.

  • Scan the photo or video for timestamps.
  • Check for geographical markers like street signs, building names, or landmarks. Use tools like Google maps or Bellingcat’s OpenStreetMap Search Tool to verify their location.
  • Look for corroborating contextual clues, i.e., if the image shows people walking through the rain, was it raining in the claimed location at that time? 
  • Use online tools like Google Reverse Image Search, TinEye, or RevEye or InVID to analyze and gather contextual information. See our Disinformation Defense Toolkit for step-by-step instructions on how to use these tools.
  • For possible deepfakes:

Use live updates to share discrete, verified elements of a story while you’re vetting the full piece.

  • Resist the urge to “feed the beast.” Don’t “hint” at aspects of the story that are yet unverified.

Intentionally craft your reporting to debunk disinformation.

  • Craft headlines to unambiguously relate the details of a story, i.e., “Court blocks executive order; govt will appeal” rather than “Executive order found unconstitutional.”
  • Ask yourself how a bad actor may try to use words, phrases, or images in your story to spread disinformation. Refrain from using inflammatory language.
  • If calling out mis- or disinformation, explain why and cite your sources. 
  • Watermark any portion of a fake or manipulated image used in your reporting to make clear it’s false and to prevent further manipulation from bad actors
  • Keep sociocultural context top of mind:
    • Communities targeted by disinformation are often underserved by credible news outlets. Be mindful that history affects the way people consume information.
    • Use your reporting as an opportunity to empathize and educate. Take care not to sound dismissive of those who may have questions or doubts. 
    • Refer to recommendations from journalists associations, such as NABJ, when reporting on events targeting historically marginalized communities. See our full guide for a list of resources.
  • Get credible information to your audience through as many channels as possible: your news outlet, your personal social media accounts, Reddit, TikTok, etc.
  • Consider responding to thoughtful questions or comments on your stories. 
  • Correct errors as soon as possible.