The Worst Covid-19 News Sources of 2020
How does the Covid-19 virus work? Which preventative actions should I follow to keep loved ones safe? When will the pandemic end? These are the sorts of questions many people sought answers for over the last year, and journalists worked tirelessly to supply the truth. Last week, The Factual looked at which outlets produced the best, most well-researched journalism over 2020 — now we want to look at which news outlets didn’t so well.
The Factual’s credibility algorithm analyzed a dataset of 178,845 articles about Covid-19 from 965 different news outlets over the course of 2020. By looking at four quantifiable, universal metrics, the algorithm enables cross-case comparisons between articles and publishers from across the media ecosystem. Based on those metrics, we can highlight which news outlets performed the best — and the worst — over the course of the first year of the pandemic.
How Does the Factual’s Credibility Algorithm Work?
The Factual’s credibility algorithm looks at four quantifiable metrics within any article to create a credibility grade out of 100 percent. This measure indicates our level of confidence that an article is credible. Anything scoring 75% or higher is highly-likely to be credible; articles falling somewhere between 50% and 75% require greater scrutiny; and articles that score less than 50% have a low probability of being credible.
Our four metrics answer key questions about credibility:
- Evidence and sources - How many sources and direct quotes were used in the article?
- Writing tone - Is the language neutral or strongly opinionated? Put another way, is an author trying to convey information or get you agitated?
- Author expertise - Does the author have a history of publishing articles on the topic area?
- Publisher history - Does the publisher have a history of publishing credible articles?
The Factual took extensive measures to minimize bias in the generation of scores, and anyone can see an explanation for each score using The Factual's browser extension. For more on how the algorithm works, see our How It Works page or watch this video.
The Factual's Top 10 Least Credible Sources
Based on the above metrics, we were able to identify the 10 major news outlets with the lowest median scores for Covid-19-related articles from 2020. To be sure, there are websites out there that are far more problematic sources of information — such as InfoWars — but we do not consider these sites to be actual news sites, and they are therefore not included in this dataset. This list is limited specifically to news outlets for which we analyzed at least 52 articles (1 per week) about Covid-19 over the course of 2020. Of the 965 news outlets in our dataset, 259 met this threshold.
It’s important to recognize that these low average credibility scores do not imply that the content published by these news outlets is necessarily incorrect. Rather, these overall scores suggest that these outlets published articles that on average lacked adequate sourcing for information, were written in an opinionated tone, came from authors without topical expertise, or were generally unreliable given the low average scores of all other articles published by the same outlet.
Note that these sources span the political spectrum from left to right and make the list for a variety of reasons. Some specialize in highly sensational click-bait articles, while others lack specific authors or only link internally when providing sources for information. Our list is dominated by tabloid-style newspapers, many from the UK, but there are also a few foreign-owned and domestic outlets that make the list for other reasons.
- TMZ - Bias: Moderate Left - Average score: 35.7%
Articles analyzed: 60
TMZ is most famous for its coverage of celebrity culture and tabloid-style journalism, including some tactics that have landed it in hot water over the years, such as heavy use of paparazzi. Published articles incorporate inflammatory headlines, rarely include an author, and lack linked sources.
Example article: “'SUPER GONORRHEA' Cases Rise Due to COVID OVERUSE OF ANTIBIOTIC TO BLAME”
Credibility score: 18%
- RT News - Bias: Moderate Right - Average score: 40.5%
Articles analyzed: 123
Though output from RT News often has plenty of substance, linked sources can be scarce and many articles are written without an identifiable author. Complicating the picture further, the outlet is funded by the Russian national government and often faces accusations of biased coverage, including spinning “facts into a different narrative, that is misleading.”
Example article: “Covid-19 mutations underestimated, Chinese scientists warn, as DEADLIEST strains grip Europe and US”
Credibility score: 34%
- Daily Express - Bias: Right - Average score: 40.7%
Articles analyzed: 106
The Daily Express is a UK-based tabloid that tends to feature more bluster than substance. While their articles do often have associated authors, topical expertise scores are typically low, language is strongly opinionated, and links only connect to other Daily Express material.
Example article: “China reports NEW unknown disease spreading across Asian country deadlier than COVID-19”
Credibility Score: 33%
- Daily Mail - Bias: Right - Average score: 40.9%
Articles analyzed: 10,166
The Daily Mail is emblematic of the UK’s tabloid-style journalism, encompassing stories that are often dramaticized or misleading. Their headlines often incorporate all-caps, meant to drive clicks, and links seek to keep readers on Daily Mail material only.
Example article: “Britain could suffer the WORST coronavirus death rate in EUROPE”
Credibility score: 27%
- Daily Mirror - Bias: Left - Average score: 42.0%
Articles analyzed: 249
Though the Daily Mirror hails form the opposite end of the political spectrum, it follows a similar style to the Daily Express and Daily Mail. Sensational headlines seek to engender fear, while many claims remain unsubstantiated.
Example article: “Coronavirus 'may cause brain damage' as dangerous swelling found in 'confused' patients”
Credibility score: 33%
- The Sun - Bias: Right - Average score: 46.5%
Articles analyzed: 191
The Sun, the final UK tabloid on the list, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, among other outlets. Its content incorporates limited evidence, agitating headlines, and opinionated writing.
Example article: “Coronavirus is getting weaker and may die out on its own WITHOUT a vaccine, Italian expert claims”
Credibility score: 37%
- Raw Story - Bias: Left - Average score: 47.0%
Articles analyzed: 508
Raw Story is a tabloid-style American news site that commonly features strongly biased headlines and minimally researched articles that seem more interested in political bickering than actual events. Linked evidence, when it does appear, generally connects to other Raw Story content.
Example article: “MAGA fans go wild as coronavirus hits blue states”
Credibility score: 33%
- Townhall - Bias: Right - Average score: 47.0%
Articles analyzed: 86
Townhall is a news and radio site that calls itself “the #1 conservative website.” With such a strong political stance, it is no surprise that many of the articles exhibit a strong political bias and heavily opinionated writing tone.
Example article: “New CDC Coronavirus Survival Rates Torches the Democrats’ Lockdown Regime”
Credibility score: 32%
- New York Daily News - Bias: Moderate Left - Average score: 47.0%
Articles analyzed: 253
New York Daily News ranked as the eleventh-largest U.S. newspaper by circulation in 2019 and actually has a strong record of factual reporting, including several Pulitzer prizes. However, a few stylistic choices, including strongly worded headlines and only the intermittent use of links, serve to undermine their overall score.
Example article: “We can’t breathe: A cruel president dismisses a coronavirus-afflicted New York’s desperate need for ventilators”
Credibility score: 23%
- Sputnik News - Bias: Moderate Right - Average score: 47.2%
Articles analyzed: 52
Sputnik News is similarly known to be a mouthpiece of the Russian government, and its mission has been described as to “undermine the official version of events — even the very idea that there is a true version of events — and foster a kind of policy paralysis.”
Example article: “Irresponsible or Reasonable? US Pastor Tells Parishioners to ‘Get’ COVID and ‘Get it Over With’”
Credibility score: 62%
Written by Phillip Meylan
Phillip is a writer, editor, and researcher. Before completing his MSc in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2019, he worked as an editor and content strategist for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. When he’s not working, you can find him playing soccer, hiking, or cooking.