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In The Nonstop Coronavirus News Cycle, Misinformation Is Rampant

By Katherine Davis-Young
Published: Thursday, April 2, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, April 2, 2020 - 8:21am

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Sky Schaudt/KJZZ,
Uncertainty is what makes information about the coronavirus so hard for news consumers to process, says media literacy researcher Kristy Roschke.

Information about the COVID-19 pandemic can be confusing. What applies here in Arizona is different than what is happening in California. And what experts and officials said in the morning can be out-of-date by lunchtime.

Kristy Roschke researches media literacy at the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She said uncertainty is what makes information about the coronavirus so hard for news consumers to process.

“To not be able to look to a leader or a trustworthy source for a definitive answer is terrifying,” Roschke said. 

And Roschke said during this extraordinary time when the public has so many questions, it’s a blessing and a curse that the internet provides answers for almost everything. While many news outlets and health officials are delivering trustworthy information, Roschke said misinformation is rampant.

“It’s really that modern-day snake oil salesman trying to capitalize on people’s fear," Roschke said. "The risk is that we will make decisions, we’ll act on information that is not in our best interest and, in this case, could be potentially fatal.”

"It’s really that modern-day snake oil salesman trying to capitalize on people’s fear."
— Kristy Roschke, News Co/Lab

In the case of one Arizona man, it was fatal. In an attempt to self-medicate against what he thought were symptoms of COVID-19, the Phoenix man in his 60s ingested a chemical used to clean fish tanks. Dr. Daniel Brooks, Banner Health Poison and Drug Information Center medical director, said that deadly decision was based on false information the man found online.

"People get a ton of information from the internet, particularly about health care advice, instead of consulting reliable, objective, scientific and medical sources," Brooks said. “There is no pill on the internet that’s going to solve this."

Brooks said during this time, when people are so worried about their health, it’s especially important to look to official sources for medical information. He recommends the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or state and county health departments.

And while so many people are isolated at home, the internet can be an essential tool to stay connected with others, but Roschke said it’s important to remember that when we use social media, we all become content creators.

Kristy Roschke
Charlie Leight/ASU Now
Kristy Roschke is managing director of the ASU News Co/Lab at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism

“We’re just adding to the confusion,” Roschke said.

Those health tips, how-tos and hotlines you want to share with friends and family could be helpful, but only if they’re real. Roschke recommends stepping back for a moment before sharing that meme, article or tweet, especially if it's something that makes you angry or upset. Emotions cloud our judgment. She also suggests cross-checking reporting against multiple sources, and determining where information comes from before sharing it.

“With a lot of information online, you can just stop and investigate the source,” she said.

Roschke said taking the extra moment to verify information is another important way we can help each other during a difficult time.

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