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Four Ways to Fight the Virus of Misinformation with Media Literacy

When it comes to coronavirus news, our viral information environment is as difficult as the virus itself. Use these media literacy tips to sort the truth from misinformation.

By Susan X. Jane
March 30, 2020

These days are likely to find you glued to the news, searching for important information about the spread of coronavirus and the interventions your community is taking in response. Unfortunately, our viral information environment is as difficult as the virus itself. Each day is crowded with coronavirus news stories, opinion pieces, and a flood of data, charts, numbers, and statistics. How can you make sense of it all?  Who can you trust? How can you stay informed without being overwhelmed? If you're asking yourself these questions, the teens you care about may be asking them too. 

Media literacy—the skill of learning to read and think critically about the media that we consume—can help you manage your consumption of information related to the virus. We have championed this skill through our work on iThrive Sim: Constitutional Crisis, a tech-enabled simulation game that teaches high-school students civics and skills such as media literacy, decision-making, and social and emotional awareness. We hope you'll use these tips and share them in discussion with the young people in your life to turn the news cycle into a learning opportunity. 

1. Manage Your Consumption

Stories that stoke fear or elicit a powerful emotional response keep us glued to the news, so news outlets are serving up plenty of content that will heighten our emotions. While there are certainly important news developments throughout the day, limiting your intake of news can help to keep you from riding a rollercoaster of emotions. News outlets aggregate the most important information for major morning and night updates. Stay informed by choosing one to two times a day to get new information"perhaps a morning update, or dip in for the 6 pm news—without missing out on important updates. 

2. Use Trusted Sources

There is an avalanche of media related to coronavirus.  How do you know where to turn? Recent years' talk of fake news has undermined the public's trust in media outlets. Additionally, major cuts in newsrooms across the country mean there are fewer reporters out on the beat chasing down information. Despite these challenges, there are still a number of news outlets doing an excellent job reporting and writing about coronavirus. Most notably, The New York Times and the Washington Post have been working hard to cover the coronavirus story in-depth, accurately with lots of facts and data to support their reporting. Both outlets have also removed their paywall, giving all people equal access to important information. The BBC continues to be one of the best news sources for world coverage. Using these news outlets well-staffed with top journalists will help ensure the news you do consume is trustworthy.

3. Separate New Stories from Opinion Pieces

Beyond gold standard reporting, there is a ton of unsourced information and opinion.  Make sure you distinguish between reported pieces, which use sources and facts to support ideas, from opinion pieces, where people substitute their own judgment for truth. Opinion pieces can help us engage with a story by learning what others think or believe, but we should be sure to evaluate what we hear or read carefully before believing it ourselves, or passing a piece on.  Beware, also, of confirmation bias: we tend to take opinions that align with our own preconceptions to be more truthful. Consuming information from a variety of sources that don't always agree with each other or with you can ensure you have access to other perspectives worth considering. 

4. When In Doubt, Fact Check

The internet age has provided us access to millions of media outlets but has also facilitated the spread of falsehoods, misinformation, and conspiracy theories. Yes, there is such a thing as fake news—often propagated by outlets seeking to cash in on clicks, or spreading falsehoods for their own ideological ends.  If a story sounds outlandish, exaggerated, or flat out wrong it's worth checking it out. Mainstream news stories, Presidential press conferences, and public statements by officials related to coronavirus can be checked at the Annenburg Center's Factcheck.org, an excellent source for evaluating news.  Chain emails, conspiracy theories, and alarmist social media posts can be checked at snopes.com, long a trusted source for evaluating viral content for accuracy.  Fact-checking the news you consume can ensure you are getting the story straight and can help keep you from passing on the virus of misinformation.

Talk About It

Media literacy is a key skill for both teens and adults that is more important now than ever.  Families at home can use these simple tips to engage teens in a conversation about managing news consumption on the coronavirus crisis and to help build media literacy skills that will produce learning that will last long after quarantine.

This media literacy piece was written by Susan X. Jane, Senior Director of Organizational Strategy at the iThrive Games Foundation. Check out her latest article on how iThrive Games' Game Design Studios create rich spaces for connection, learning, systems thinking, and activating social change.