The readers’ guide to understanding what you need to know about the coronavirus

March 4, 2020

Drinking bleach does not cure COVID-19, a new coronavirus. China has not tried to exterminate people infected with it, or their pets. And all those people sharing alarming information on all your social media feeds? They need to slow down. Since they won’t, you have to.

In 2014, as fear spread of Ebola coming to the U.S., we created a readers’ guide for understanding a medical crisis. Now, we’ve created a second edition devoted to the coronavirus disease. It includes some simple graphics to copy and share about finding reliable information, plus tips on navigating what’s true online and on social media, which is such a huge issue that Poynter has three projects devoted to it.

I spoke with:

  • Dr. Tom Linden, director, M.A. in media and communication and Glaxo Wellcome Distinguished Professor of Medical Journalism at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media
  • Arthur Caplan, Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor of Bioethics and Director – Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center’s Department of Population Health
  • Dr. Seema Yasmin, a science journalist and medical doctor at Stanford’s Center for Health Education
  • Cristina Tardáguila, the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter
  • Katy Byron, editor and program manager of Poynter’s media literacy project, MediaWise.

Here’s what they recommend.

Related: How newsrooms can tone down their coronavirus coverage while still reporting responsibly 

Go to the source.

News that Vice President Mike Pence has been put in charge of the official U.S. response to the coronavirus concerned Caplan.

“I think there should be scientists and doctors vetting Pence, not the other way around,” he said.

But the government institutions themselves haven’t politicized the issue, Linden said. As with Ebola, Dr. Yasmin said, one basic way to get sound information holds up. Namely — Go directly to the institutions devoted to the issue.

Caplan agreed, “but I would try to get information from more than one source.”

Those government and professional sources include:

Caplan also recommended checking your local universities or academic health centers for information that’s relevant to where you live. Many have shared information about the coronavirus. Some examples:

Be skeptical of what you read online using a few simple tricks.

You know the stories you see on Facebook that look outrageous and super clickable and are from outlets you’ve never heard of before? You can still read them, but you can also be skeptical of what you see with a few questions from IFCN’s Tardáguila.

– Does the headline match the article itself?

“When the headline doesn’t match, it means it’s just catching you,” she said. “There’s no content there. It wants your click but there’s no reliable information.”

Yep, that’s clickbait. We all fall for it.

–What date was the article published? People share quickly and don’t always see if the story they’re sharing is old and still holds up. Look at that timestamp.

– Who wrote it? If you’re not familiar with the author’s work, Google them, Tardáguila said. Do they usually write about this topic? In the case of the coronavirus, is this person a health reporter? What else have they written about the subject?

– Look for signs of sensationalism. Journalists who write hard news don’t deal much with exclamation points.

“We try hard to narrate, we try to go to facts. We don’t put qualities on it,” Tardáguila said. “Exclamation marks are people screaming. So if you find those, be aware.”

– Are they quoting reliable sources? Just like you’d check the author’s byline, look up their sources. Do they hold up?

–Follow the hyperlinks. Assuming the piece links out, where does it take you? If it leads to the information mentioned in the link, and if that source is solid, that’s a good indicator. It should not lead to an ad or something unrelated.

– Do the numbers hold up? Tardáguila wants to see numbers and percentages together. Why? You need context. If something is 100% bigger, you need to know if that means it just went from one to two.

– Consider historical data. With coronavirus, knowing how many cases there are this month compared with last is useful information. Look for data that adds context and helps you understand something.

“If you can find that information in an article, you’re probably looking at a good piece,” Tardáguila said.

Related training: A reporter’s guide to getting it right

Apply that to social media

“The amount of misinformation surrounding coronavirus is unsettling,” said MediaWise’s Byron, “and I feel for everyone who is freaking out a little based on what they’re seeing on their social media timelines.”

For MediaWise’s group of fact-checkers and teen fact-checkers, “this story to us is no different than any others we see,” Byron said.

And that means MediaWise’s foundational tips, which were created by Stanford History Education Group, apply.

  • Before you share something, ask these three questions: Who is behind the information? What is the evidence? What do other sources say?
  • To help figure that out, practice lateral reading.

That means opening a few other tabs and reading laterally to see who is behind the info you’re reading, who posted it, and what else has been reported about it.

  • Check multiple sources.

Don’t just get your news from one place, Byron said. “You should be reading three, four news sources on any given story, and that includes the coronavirus.”

Get to know the hoaxes and misinformation

Since gathering fact-checkers around the world to cover misinformation about the coronavirus, the IFCN’s Tardáguila has a good idea of what kind of information and misinformation we’ll have to navigate here. So far, she said, that’s included five waves, with a six happening now.

First, people shared misinformation about where the coronavirus came from.

Second, she saw a push of edited videos made to look like they were showing people with coronavirus. That’s not what they really showed.

Third, and the scariest, Tardáguila said, was news about false cures and false preventative measures, including drinking bleach, taking extra vitamin C and ingesting a lot of garlic.

“No,” she said. “Do not do anything without good information from your doctor.”

Fourth, the IFCN’s members saw a wave of conspiracy theories purporting people who had the virus were being exterminated. The same news spread about people’s pets.

Fifth, hoaxes spread falsely linking immunity to the coronavirus to certain races and religions.

And the latest and sixth wave fact-checkers are seeing: false positives. Expect to see news that’s untrue or gets debunked about celebrities getting coronavirus. Tardáguila has also seen hoaxsters mock up news that looks like it’s from a legitimate source, including a government or mainstream news site, to spread misinformation about the coronavirus.

But you know what to do: Pause before sharing, check multiple sources, be skeptical. Basically, it’s a wash, rinse and repeat process, like with your hands. Also, please wash your hands.

@mediawise♬ original sound – mediawise

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org. She can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare

Correction: An earlier version of this story got the name of MediaWise’s teen fact-checkers wrong, they’re fact-checkers, not ambassadors, which is another MediaWise program. Also, the standards in the social media section were created BY Stanford History Education Group, not WITH them. We apologize for the errors. They have been corrected.