COVID-19: Getting good information as virus crisis unfolds

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A part of responding to any crisis is having enough good information on which to make decisions – whether you are making those for yourself or others.

Let’s add one more list to the various check-offs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), employers and others on how to deal with COVID-19: Tools and tips for getting good information about dealing with the virus from sources you trust.

In times of crisis, from natural disasters to 9/11 and more, a free press has consistently delivered the goods, saving lives and asking the necessary and often inevitable challenging questions of the public officials on whom we depend for safety and security.

Put aside for now the blather about “fake news” — so politicized as to have no real meaning any longer. Discount President Trump’s claim that it’s the news media that’s leading the world’s stock markets into “yo-yo Dow” days. And pay less attention to the cable TV punditry and focus on the news reports from reporters with sources who appear by name in print, online or on TV.

The virus and its threat to our health is real. The market is down — and up and down — regardless of what’s causing it. Look for facts. Don’t be too accepting of information from any source, particularly on social media. Blog posts, tweets and public forums provide valued means of sharing individual information and experiences, as well as provide real-time data of how well government services are performing.

In the first such major crisis in which social media tools were more widely available, during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the then-fledgling online efforts by the web alternative to New Orleans’ Times-Picayune newspaper provided essential information on what was happening “now.” Even police and Coast Guard rescuers said they had monitored NOLA.com, at times sending in teams to help those posting that they were in danger. NOLA.com later won a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts.

While some are upset that what they are hearing from the administration and what they are reading or viewing seem to differ, a free press response to that situation is: “So what’s new?” Nearly 100 years ago, President Herbert Hoover’s administration first responded to the 1929 stock market crash by calling it a market reset or passing adjustment — or at worst, part of a passing recession that would soon be over. Understandable perhaps as an effort to stave off worse news. But it’s Variety’s headline a day after “Black Tuesday” — the huge, one-day drop in the Dow — that let Americans know what really happened: “Wall Street Lays an Egg!”

From the Vietnam War — with its infamous “credibility gap” between what journalists saw in combat and what military leaders were saying, to what we now know about out-of-proportion government surveillance programs across decades of our nation’s history, it’s a free press that over time gives us the facts we need.

My colleague Barbara McCormack, who oversees the Freedom Forum’s Newseum Education initiative, has this advice on turning to a free press for information and avoiding disinformation: “Break out of your content bubble and make sure you’re engaging with diverse ideas. That includes ideas you disagree with. With a nearly infinite supply of information at our fingertips, it can be all too easy to start gravitating to sources that reinforce our beliefs and make us feel validated, but the less likely we are to spot propaganda that is trying to exploit our beliefs and biases.”

Her advice: Break out of your media rut. Try this: Create a list of five news sources to consult on a regular basis — not necessarily every day, but every week or so.

The CDC has its basic instructions on handwashing. Here’s something similar for getting good information you can use about COVID-19:

  1. Identify two general news sources you already look at on a regular basis and usually agree with;
  2. Find two general news sources you don’t usually agree with;
  3. Find one source that covers news from a specific perspective, such as the views of a particular demographic, religious group or profession;
  4. Read and listen to each of them.

McCormack’s advice: “It’s OK for your sources to display a bias in their coverage, but make sure that all five are real, fact-based news and opinion organizations. If you’re not sure, you can use a resource like the website AllSides to evaluate your sources. Check them on a regular basis to help you see the world in all its complexity, not just from a single vantage point.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Tampa Bay Times and others have removed paywalls for information about the virus crisis, or placed critical information outside their pay sites. USA TODAY, The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN and the broadcast networks and many other major news outlets are offering COVID-19  newsletters and medical tips on a daily basis.

A part of responding to any crisis is having enough good information on which to make decisions — whether you are making those for yourself or others. And in such times, throughout our nation’s history, a free press — if we care to use it — has been there on our behalf to obtain and report the facts we need.

For more information: https://newseumed.org/fact-finder-guide.

Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.

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