Facts in the time of COVID-19
Created on June 17, 2020
During a pandemic it’s more important than ever to avoid falling for or spreading misinformation and disinformation. But with so much new and changing information, how do you know what to trust? PacSci has teamed up with the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public to help you navigate COVID-19 and the 24-hour news cycle.
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Peer review is when other scientists, researchers, or academics in the same field review a study. It’s important to remember that a peer reviewed paper still might not be perfect – passing this stage just means it seems valid so far.
When you’re reading scientific news, try to pay attention to the kinds of words being used. Is there a lot of hypothetical language? Do they mention if a study has been published and peer reviewed? Are there quotes from scientists emphasizing that the theory is still new? Are there any quotes from subject matter experts who were not involved in the study?
Headlines can be misleading.
Not all stories are dramatic.
Credible sources provide evidence.
Headlines are supposed to catch your attention. Even the best publications can be guilty of using headlines that are over-the-top or flat-out misleading to pull the reader in.
It is important to carefully read the whole story, and never just the headline.
In a reputable publication or news site, you’ll probably see some headlines that aren’t attention-grabbing. If every headline on a website sounds wild or scary, this might not be the best place to look for credible information.
Well-balanced news stories cite studies, include links to sources or other articles, and feature interviews with subject matter experts. If there are graphs and charts, there will be links to the raw data.
A trustworthy news source will never expect you to believe everything just because they say it. Trustworthy sources also correct their mistakes. If a source never issues corrections, be wary.
Look at specialties
Doctors have specialties, and their specialties are usually mentioned in credible articles. If a doctor is being quoted without that detail, it might be a red flag, but a quick online search should help clear things up.
Being an expert in nutrition doesn’t qualify someone to talk about infectious disease, and even a world-class dentist won’t have expert knowledge in how vaccines are made.
Nobody expects you to be an expert in everything, either – including in how to spot an expert! But there are some things you can look for to help you understand if a source is trustworthy.
While you should exercise some caution doing online research, since anyone can make a website, it can be helpful to get a general impression of someone’s work: Do you find their name linked to peer-reviewed studies, or is it mostly news articles where they present claims about lots of different subjects? Are there stories about them getting in trouble for this in the past?
When you see them interviewed, do they claim to know most things with certainty, or do they explain when some details aren’t yet known? And is the information they’re providing different from what anyone else has claimed? If an idea is new and being presented with certainty, that’s a big sign that something isn’t right.
Cutting down your news consumption can help! Try reading the news once or twice each day instead of constantly. And wait for a story to hit major headlines instead of looking for a brand-new scoop on social media. Let the experts digest it first, then communicate it to the journalists, who are trained to report it to you in a clear, accurate way.
Your state and local health boards will have the most up-to-date information on the virus in your area. Follow their guidance, and err on the side of caution. As your state opens up, continue to take as many safety measures as you’re able and to stay home when possible.
Read news from well-established publications that cite lots of sources and interview relevant experts. Even then, before you panic about a story you’ve read, try to find the same information reported on elsewhere. Read more than one version; you may be surprised by how a slight difference in wording can change the story!
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This exhibit was created by Pacific Science Center.