August, 20, 2020
By Michael Vera
The SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19, pandemic has cast an unforgiving light on the vulnerabilities associated with how we communicate information on our digital platforms. The internet offers endless volumes of information which, in theory, is a good thing. During a public health crisis, however, it is imperative for internet users to cut through the noise and find valid information from qualified sources.
At Cadmus, our public health professionals continue to navigate the digital infodemic, described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “an excessive amount of information about a problem, which makes it difficult to identify a solution.” Since the first appearance of a then-unnamed virus in December 2019, our team of epidemiologists and microbiologists have continued to support our federal clients with global disease surveillance, which uses open-source information.
An article or report regarding an outbreak or public health response may appear satisfactory at first glance but taking a closer look at the details will reveal whether the source is worthwhile. To help identify any red flags, we analyze its fundamental components and then scrutinize its message in the overall context of the coronavirus pandemic. Although most articles and reports found on the internet are formatted differently, we use a framework approach as a general practice to assess credibility and content when new COVID-19 information emerges. This framework is accessible to anyone with internet access; we have outlined it below to offer guidance for anyone looking to stay informed and confident about the validity of their information amid a fast-moving pandemic and infodemic.
Evaluate Each Source
We begin by considering the author or publisher and noting the tone of the writing. Writing styles vary when an author chooses to appeal to your emotions compared to presenting a rational, objective look at the data. If an article uses attention-grabbing words, sensational language, and subjective interpretations, we disregard and move on. If the author seems to be objective, uses concise language, and employs clear definitions with references, then the source may be trustworthy. Epidemiological counts, such as cases, recoveries, and deaths, with an authoritative confirmation is an objective point of measure we look to for validation. Trustworthy authorities include public health experts, like physicians and epidemiologists, representing public-serving agencies. Reputable agencies may be as small as county health department or large as a Ministry of Health. When the available information is pieced together in a time series, an epidemiological cluster’s severity or counter measure’s effectiveness can be quantitatively measured and evaluated.
Sometimes authors use single-case reports—narratives of an individual patient’s experience—to subtly appeal to a reader’s emotions and personal values and disguise biased or misleading content. Single-case reports give an intimate look at the situation, but they do not represent the outbreak at large. The data, evidence, and resources presented in such an article may be highly specific to the author’s call to action, possibly serving a specific sample group and not the greater population. An MIT study conducted in 2018 found that misinformation spreads more easily when it evokes strong feelings such as fear, disgust, and surprise. By contrast, doctors, public health officials, and professional journalists are careful to use only informative, actionable language and admit uncertainty when warranted.
Next, we dive deeper and account for the publishing history of the authoring group. We research whether the reporting source, for example, a local newspaper, has any professionally educated or credentialed medical or health writers on staff to validate their analysis or guidance. We ask whether the reporting source has been accountable, as demonstrated by providing works cited or hyperlinks to supporting materials or amending outdated information.
Academic journals are the gold standard literature source. Publications such as The Journal of The American Medical Association), the Lancet, and The New England Journal of Medicine are primary sources that purposefully advance what we know about the virus and prompt scientific research to fill the knowledge gaps. These are high-impact, peer-reviewed sources of information that doctors and policymakers rely on. Research articles traditionally recount the timeline and current knowledge in their background section, giving us a comprehensive look at the situation.
We typically avoid reporting from people with inappropriate backgrounds in public health, such as celebrities, social media influencers, or partisan commentators and the organizations they may represent. According to the WHO, non-health actors usually account for the publication of incorrect information that can lead to dangerous and unproven claims being shared and going viral.
Broaden the Scope
After we have analyzed the source, we broaden our scope to consider its place in the larger outbreak. The process involves research to find additional reports covering the subject from other established, reputable sources. These include public, federal, and international agencies such as individual states’ Health Departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the WHO, and news outlets with ethical and standardized journalistic practices. The Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard is an excellent go-to resource to cross-check reported counts or to gain a high-level overview of the present situation.
When comparing sources, we confirm similar publishing dates, consistent contextualization, and note any omissions of key details from one source to the other. It is possible a report stands alone either due to its technicality or timeliness; in this case, we must take a closer look at the report’s cohesion to the established timeline. Although this process is reliable, we can save time and effort by reviewing research articles in academic journals.
Balancing Speed with Accuracy
One of the major challenges our analysts encounter is balancing speed with accuracy. Scientific journals remain the standard against which we compare all information, but peer review is a time-consuming process and the COVID-19 pandemic is a rapidly evolving event. The need for immediate information often dictates which sources we use. As a general rule in that situation, we go to primary sources and avoid aggregators. We have included links to the websites of state departments of health, federal public health agencies, and foreign ministries of health. Collectively, these sources tend to provide the most accurate information regarding case counts and deaths. They also can be informative when looking for which interventions a locality has initiated.
In conclusion, it is critical to note the volatility of the digital information landscape during this once-in-a-generation event. Countless experts and leaders are focused on combating this pandemic, which results in new information daily. Successful decision-making is predicated on timely, reliable information.
We recommend exploring the sources below to stay up to date and informed about the coronavirus:
- Public Health
- News Media