4 ways to be a seasoned news consumer in a pandemic

June 11, 2020
  • umichnews@umich.edu
Newspaper clippings about Covid-19. Image credit: Getty Images

Newspaper clippings about Covid-19. Image credit: Getty Images

As coronavirus research reaches us quickly, stay tuned as you read and share the latest news.

Sometimes it’s like trying to drink water from a fire hose. All of these headlines making new claims about COVID-19. All of these social media posts debating restrictions or reopening. All the worry about whether we overreacted or didn’t do enough. All of this is enough to stop some people from paying attention.

But the world needs people who can identify and share solid information about COVID-19 and detect misinformation and exaggeration. They will be the key to the next phase of the pandemic and will reduce suffering and death as the health crisis continues.

“It can be difficult to assess all the new information that comes in, especially when we are under stress,” says Preeti Malani, head of health at the University of Michigan. “But that makes it all the more important that we focus on sharing and acting on the most reliable and confirmed information.”

So, how can you navigate this fast news environment, if you care about using science to guide us in the coming months?

Here are some tips:

1. Understand that science changes. That’s what it was designed for. Especially now.

This virus is still new, even six months after the pandemic. Scientists and people worked quickly to understand it. They are using advanced tools and data sources that weren’t even available a few years ago.

It seems like forever that the world is facing restrictions related to COVID. But in scientific terms, six months is just a snap. Studies take time, a lot of time.

Whenever a scientific team from COVID-19 shares new findings, they add data to the information available for use by other experts. And together, this information can help with decisions on everything from opening schools, treating patients, to vaccine design.

By nature, if they are based on science, these decisions can and must change. The right thing to do three months ago, or even a month ago, may not be the right thing to do next month, as scientists discover more.

So if someone comments, “They told us otherwise in April!”, Or complains that they just read a news story that contradicts another story from a few weeks ago, it is crucial to remind them that “science happens!” and that scientists are doing their best to resolve a global emergency caused by a new virus.

2. Remember the old adage “Better safe than sorry”.

It looks like something your grandma can say. But it is the guiding principle of most public health authorities and has taken us here.

Public health officials almost always focus on working to avoid something bad or address it as early as possible, rather than trying to interfere after it is happening.

So even if scientists discover new data about how the coronavirus spreads from one person to another, or who is most at risk of contracting the virus, public health officials can follow the advice they gave earlier. They will not change course just because a study says something new. They will wait for evidence to accumulate.

Experts call this the “precautionary principle.” And now, that means wearing masks indoors, keeping your distance from others, washing your hands and, above all, keeping sick people at home and protecting older people or those with certain health conditions.

3. Handle sneak peek and quick science with special care

Medical science generally moves slowly for one reason: to give other scientists a chance to criticize the work and challenge their claims. This happens in lectures, conferences and in the anonymous review process of journal articles called “review of the partners”.

These checks and balances are not infallible. But they were designed to prevent bad science from going too far. And if defective findings or exaggerated claims come to light, scientists can criticize them through letters or tweets. They can ask for corrections or even large-scale retractions to cancel publishing an article.

But the urgency that scientists feel about studying COVID-19 is leading many of them to consider publishing their work as “prepresses”. This form of scientific publication “sneak peek” means that new results are available online even before the review of the partners.

The original idea was to invite other scientists to read and openly criticize them, and to obtain new discoveries in the market for ideas. But it also means that anyone, including reporters, can share them on social media or write stories about them. And that can lead people to make premature conclusions – especially when it comes to making prevention or treatment decisions.

Even if a COVID-19 article goes through a quick review by partners and is published in a medical journal, the pressure to work at high speed can make errors or exaggerations more likely.

Already in the early months of the pandemic, several studies that obtained great news coverage and social media attention when they were published as pre-presses or articles in fast-changing journals were withdrawn or corrected. But at this point, the damage was done. Thousands of people used drugs that proved more harmful than useful, and false hopes were raised and then dashed.

Now, hundreds or even thousands of COVID-19 studies are being worked on for publication. Impatience with the slowness of scientific peer review can increase — and so can the use of preprints.

So when reading the news from COVID-19, stop for a moment and look for the source of the information. Is the article about a scientific study published in a magazine or online as a pre-print? If you don’t know, it may be a good idea to check if any other news organizations have already covered the same study. Just because a reporter is the first to cover a new survey does not mean that they did the best job.

Reporters can mention the word “prepress” in their stories about the new COVID-19 polls. If you do, be more careful.

If a news article does not mention a pre-press or research paper, be even more cautious. A claim about something as important as care with COVID-19 must be supported by solid scientific evidence. Human lives are at stake.

4. Check and double check before sharing.

The era of social media, self-published blogs and websites, and “news organizations” who have a strong point of view, makes it harder than ever to know what information to trust.

Some groups are struggling with this situation. For example, social media companies have started to label some types of news as more reliable than others, or to assign “verified” status to Twitter accounts of experts in certain fields related to COVID. The mainstream media are making their COVID-19 stories free of charge, written by experienced science and health reporters. And fact-checking sites and efforts have flourished.

But for the most part, it is easy for bad information to arrive faster than good information. They can circulate especially fast if they reinforce what people already believe or what they want to be true.