Reading Responsibly During a Pandemic

by Sarah Schwartz, Biological Engineering Communication Fellow

Science communicators—and the general public—have professional and ethical responsibilities when writing or sharing information. That is especially true during stressful, high-stakes situations—for example, a pandemic. But communication is not one-sided; it relies upon engagement between the communicator and the audience.

As readers, we also have a responsibility and role to play in making sure that true, helpful information is championed over misleading or confusing noise. We have to be able to both evaluate and vet the accuracy of what we read, and then amplify the right stories.

As we search through headlines, inboxes, and conversations to find information to guide our actions or to share with our community, there are a few methods we can use to read more responsibly: know your sources, check your facts, and take your time.

Know your sources!

To determine if information is reliable, it’s essential to consider where the information is coming from. There are a couple ways to apply this principle:

1. Who is the writer or speaker?

To contextualize the message they’re hearing, readers should consider whose voice is delivering it. At the most basic level, it’s important to check if the source of your information has the credentials or position required to provide an informed, accurate opinion. What is the writer’s field of expertise? Does their training—whether as a scientist, physician, journalist, or otherwise—provide relevant, applicable skills and knowledge?

Assessing a source’s reliability can be straightforward: A physician’s healthcare advice is probably more accurate than a politician’s, and a microbiologist’s understanding of viruses is probably more trustworthy than an actor’s. Articles from reputable news outlets are probably more dependable than opinions posted on blogs or social media sites.

But sometimes, it can be harder to tell whether or not an opinion is informed or trustworthy. In some cases, it’s an issue of the complexity and magnitude of the scientific field. (During a recent family conversation, a relative of mine who is a virologist even hedged his own understanding of coronavirus intricacies, pointing out that he was a molecular virologist.) In other cases, scientific opinions vary, perhaps because different experts’ situations or backgrounds can lead to varying conclusions. Take, for example, the recent disagreement between a family physician who posted a video with instructions on how to disinfect groceries, and a food microbiologist who warned against following this advice, saying that parts of the video were misinformed or possibly even dangerous.

Because conflicting information may exist—and because there are gradients of applicable expertise for every issue—it’s important to search for variations or confirmations of advice before making important decisions. In cases with limited input or wildly different opinions, it’s up to the reader to compare the expertise available and decide which opinion is most trustworthy—or withhold judgment until more information becomes available.

2. What is the original/primary source of information?

Readers can take advantage of the fact that scientists and reporters usually strive to cite their primary sources. This is the basic format of all scientific publishing: In a research article, the authors will indicate clearly which studies previous opinions or data came from, and will include hard evidence for any new data. Science journalists will attribute numbers, conclusions, or quotes in their stories to the experts, organizations, or studies that provided these facts. Similarly, many journalistic publications have been vetted by a professional fact checker, who plucks out every nugget of data in a story and tracks it back to its origin, making sure facts are preserved and presented accurately.

When communicators include the original source for their claims, it provides their reader with an easier path to believing, understanding, or checking the underlying rationale or data. Conversely, readers should be suspicious of big claims without a paper trail leading to the facts that construct (and thereby defend) these claims.

Peer review and fact checking safeguard against many inaccuracies, so at a very basic level, information published in respected scientific journals or news outlets is likely more reliable than opinions or advice detailed elsewhere. Official government and university sources also tend to be more trustworthy than unknown or unaffiliated sites (as these entities have access to powerful resources for data accumulation, and hefty public, academic, and legal responsibilities). If you’re looking for some helpful sources of information, check out the resources listed at the bottom of this post!

Check the Facts

Sometimes, sources aren’t cited, or a writer’s credibility isn’t clear. In these instances, a reader has to also be a fact checker before disseminating or acting on new information. This process can be relatively straightforward, such as tracing a recommendation for social distancing back to the CDC, or hunting down the original study that showed coronavirus mutation rates. Whether a reader returns to a few trusted sources or searches the Web to sample a broader variety of viewpoints, the end goal is to compare new information with reliable, credible information to generate support, conclusions—or suspicion.

But fact checking can also be more complex or challenging—for example, determining whether or not studies cited by public officials are themselves reliable. (As one recent case involving a retracted study and another involving contentious data suggest, this may not always be the case.) It’s fairly simple to identify and disregard retracted papers (reputable journals label them clearly). But for other studies, it can be tricky to interpret whether results might have been overstated or misinterpreted by the press, the scientists themselves, or others along the way. This is especially hard to determine in cases where the full document or dataset isn’t accessible, or where deep understanding may require specific scientific training.

Still, there are ways to help weed out suspect sources. First, studies published in established, peer-reviewed journals will always be more credible than unreviewed or—worse—anecdotal reports, which cannot be trusted. Second, even if a reader can’t access figures or data tables, a paper’s title and abstract can help contextualize its scope and impact. The title can help summarize the study’s intention, and the abstract should shed light on the study’s content, breadth, and applicability. These basic features can help contextualize the study’s impact and limit overgeneralizations. For example, studies with very small sample sizes, or human-centric conclusions drawn from only non-human models (such as mice, microbes, or cells in petri dishes), should be viewed with appropriate caution.

A good rule of thumb to remember: The more extreme, surprising, unique, or controversial the news or advice seems, the more rigorously and extensively it should be checked. This is especially true if the information at hand might help drive an action or decision during high-stress times!

Take your time

On the frontlines of the pandemic, things are changing quickly. Those of us fortunate enough to be safely social distancing or quarantining at home are witnessing this rapidly shifting terrain via a deluge of new, scary, constantly shifting information and input. The pressure to engage, react, or respond in some way—especially from our socially-distanced bubbles—can feel intense. But pausing can be powerful. Taking whatever time is required to compare and check sources and data and to consider the context and impact of incoming messages will reap huge rewards. For one, it prevents the spread of misleading information—so, as our colleagues in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies and Writing program recently put it, you can think of the extra time you take as a reader as literary handwashing! Waiting can also allow additional information to settle into place, making it easier to vet sources or check facts. (For example, the family physician’s original food safety advice has now been corrected in the video description, and even revised in multiple new videos).  But in general, the more time and space you allow yourself as a reader, the more fully you can digest and the more confidently and appropriately you can respond.

Being a responsible, engaged, and informed reader is a small part to play. But communally, it can help us be arbiters of fact and best practices as we all weather the next several weeks of this strange and stressful time.


If you’re looking for good places to start reading or fact checking, here are some recommended resources:

Keep in mind that you may get the most pertinent information from local or regional resources. For the MIT community, that includes:

Read the rest of the Communication Lab’s COVID-19 blog series