With so much being written about the COVID-19 pandemic every day, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the sheer amount information available. And given that, it is harder than ever to suss out which ones actually provide quality reporting and are worth paying attention to. So how do we know what to read and who to trust?
Dr. Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington (and a former guest on The Upgrade), recently spoke with Scientific American about how to consume and evaluate COVID-19 news coverage without “freaking out” (their words). As an expert in identifying and calling bullshit, Bergstrom shared tips to help you figure out which COVID news is worth reading and believing. Here are some of our favorites.
Wait 12-18 hours to read an article on ‘breaking news’
There are some news stories where speed and immediate reporting make sense, like deaths of public figures or major global events. But this type of instant “breaking news” reporting isn’t always the best option—like, for instance, if it involves medical or scientific details related to an ongoing global pandemic. Bergstrom recommends that we slow down:
“High-quality information doesn’t have a whole lot to do with timeliness on the scale of minutes to hours. It has everything to do with how well that information has been vetted and triangulated and presented. What I encourage people to do in a crisis like this one is to slow down and [read] a newspaper story that was posted 12 hours ago—or 18 hours ago or 36 hours ago—that was written by a professional reporter who’s been covering infectious disease for years [and] who has talked to a bunch of experts to synthesize what’s going on and interpret things and put [them] into context.
I encourage people to turn to their trusted traditional media sources rather than turning to Twitter or Facebook or WhatsApp, because when you do that, you do get information that’s a little bit more recent, but the quality of that information is far, far lower. You’re very susceptible to whatever rumors go spreading out across the Internet, and that can be a big problem.”
Find and follow specific journalists who have experience writing about health and/or infectious disease
Regardless of what a journalist’s beat was prior to the pandemic, pretty much everything has shifted to COVID coverage. The problem here is that not everyone has the background and training to handle that type of reporting. This, combined with the need for speed, means that many COVID articles may include information or analyses that aren’t accurate.
Bergstrom says that for him, finding the best news sources comes down to analyzing individual reporters. The list of those he reads includes Helen Branswell at STAT, because, he says, she has more than 20 years of experience reporting on infectious disease. “She understands the entire picture and does a brilliant job of presenting it,” he tells Scientific American. “I think it’s a matter of finding those voices that you trust and then relying on those voices.”
Changing views or advice is a good thing
The chief challenges of reporting on the pandemic are the evolving science and shifting public health messaging. One day we’re told not to wear masks, and a few weeks later they’re mandatory—that kind of thing. Some media consumers may think that if a publication or journalist changes their position or advice on something, it means that their reporting is inaccurate. But, as Bergstrom points out, it’s actually the opposite:
“The first thing to recognize [is that] because the science changes, the advice that you get from health professionals changes over time as well. You’ll see people saying, ‘Well, you can’t trust [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony] Fauci, because he was saying one thing in February, and he’s saying something else in July.’ This is completely backwards. The people you can’t trust are the ones who have not changed their views and advice, despite having enormously more evidence. The ones who are changing their views and advice, based on evidence, are the ones who are doing science and the ones who are giving good recommendations.”
To hear more from Bergstrom, check out his appearance on The Upgrade.