Guarding against Fake News: Covid-19 Edition

Covid19 Fake News image

This post was co-written with Nate Gass

As we shelter in place and wonder what comes next, emotions are running high. People have a real sense of fear; fear for their livelihoods, their health, and what life looks like moving forward. We are collectively drained and perhaps our guards are down which tends to be when we become most susceptible to misinformation.

“Fake News” is designed to prey on emotion. Headlines are designed to make us feel things deeply and memes may make us feel like we are delivering a quick zinger, but are often the source of misinformation. Fake News is spectacularly unhelpful during the best of times and these are certainly not the best of times, but how do we protect ourselves and guard against its spread? Read on for some trusted librarian tricks and tips for consuming your news with confidence.

Choosing (and limiting) your sources

The starting point we recommend is selecting one or two trusted news source(s) and one official agency from which to receive updates. This allows for some self care by controlling the flow of news coming at you on a daily basis. The amount of information on Covid-19, how quickly it is changes, and the uniqueness of the situation can be overwhelming. Finding ways to add limits while staying informed can help.

The Internet never says “You’ve had enough, now go away.”
Nir Eyal

Thankfully reliable information supplied by experts is rather easy to find right now. Most major outlets have taken down paywalls around their coverage of Covid-19 and offer daily news digests delivered directly to your inbox.  Government agencies from the federal level down to the local level provide easy to understand FAQs and regular updates about regional happenings. Elected officials regularly send out updates on how to find help.  We have gathered many of these public health and government sites on the library’s Covid-19 Information page (scroll down to Covid-19 Resources).

We would caution against relying heavily on outlets that fall entirely outside the mainstream when looking for Covid-19 specific information. Although “mainstream media” is often considered a dirty word, remember the definition of “mainstream” simply means something that is considered normal or orthodox by larger society. If you still feel more comfortable consulting alternative outlets always read the source’s “about” section. If you cannot find an “about” section, this is a good sign the site is not a credible source. Understanding the perspective of an outlet will help you suss out any agenda or bias they may hold.

While memes can be hilarious and a great form of short hand when communicating, please take care to not accept them as fact especially when applied to news or historical topics. When used to make a point, especially about a specific politician or political party, they are often factually inaccurate and cause more division rather than being a useful tool to educate. Often times quotes are misattributed or completely fabricated, statistics lack context or are skewed, or the information is just flat out wrong. We suggest if you see a meme on one of your social media feeds, keep on scrolling. If it grabs your attention and really makes you wonder, then do your own research. Sites like Poltifact have dedicated sections to Coronavirus which include memes and Facebook posts and a quick google search can usually dispel or confirm any concerns you may have.

What type of journalism is it? Who is the author?

Some practical tips that should be applied whenever you are consuming news have become even more important with the current news cycle. Be aware of what type of news you are consuming. Are you reading or watching opinion journalism or news reporting? Most of cable news is opinion journalism rather than fact reporting and while hearing opinions on current events is certainly helpful, take the time to form your own informed opinion by reading and watching widely.  While you may find an OpEd helpful, you need to ask who is the author and what expertise are they offering during this time.

The goal of news reporting is to give you the information you need for your role in our democratic society. The goal of opinion journalism is to help you make up your mind about that information.
Stony Brook Center for News Literacy

Exploring authorship is always a good idea so you can process or consider the information accordingly. Consider if the author may have ties to a special interest group or is trying to sell something. This will give you a better handle on what type of information you are consuming. If a communication specialist or media personality is offering their opinion on treatments for Covid-19 take that opinion for what it is – someone’s personal, albeit perhaps passionate, opinion. Additionally, just because someone is a doctor does not mean they are an expert on Covid-19. The medical field is vast and should not be treated as a monolith. Consider your own medical needs. You probably wouldn’t want your dermatologist delivering your baby, so focus on advice or analysis coming from experts in the medical profession who are virus and infectious disease specialists.

The library is ready to help

Be assured your library has a wide variety of readily available news outlets to choose from electronically with a Cook Memorial Public Library card. Visit our Research Page and browse the Magazines and Newspapers subject.  Local reporting can be found in the Daily Herald or Chicago Tribune. National reporting can be found in The New York Times, Washington Post, or via PressReader. PressReader features international reporting and has created a daily collection of Covid-19 stories curated from multiple news outlets.

In short, find one or two trusted news sources, become aware of government resources, guard yourself against misinformation, and practice some self care. It is our hope these librarian tips and tricks will go a long way towards providing some stability during these unsettling times. Stay safe and stay informed.

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