Column: The parallel pandemic of illiteracy

What’s the right message about COVID-19? Should I wear a medical mask, or will a gaiter suffice? Is outdoor dining safe? Should I be tested for antibodies and will a positive test mean immunity to the virus?

The public is facing difficulty finding these answers, partly due to conflicting media messages and the challenges many journalists face in discerning reliable sources and sound science.

Misinformation during this crisis -- regarded by the World Health Organization as an infodemic -- goes beyond the rogue, one-off websites with false stories, edited videos and conspiracy theories. High-profile public figures and so-called experts have also peddled falsities, adding to the confusion.

As the deadly coronavirus enters its ninth month in the U.S., the world continues to grapple with a parallel and potentially lethal pandemic: media illiteracy.

This phenomenon is the inability to critically assess information and the reliability of its source. The COVID-19 infodemic has impaired even rational thinkers paralyzed by fear, the flood of information, and the pressure to make life-altering decisions.

News organizations have an incredible responsibility to fight false information and help ease public fears, and they can, if they improve their own level of health literacy. Scientists know more, vaccine development is “accelerating,” but interagency communication remains uncoordinated, which means journalists must exercise stronger editorial judgement on stories worth covering, seek and contextualize relevant data to go beyond surface level information they are provided.

Health-literate reporters are especially critical in local newsrooms where families seek to stay informed about their communities as they resume school, sports, face a dangerous flu season, and look ahead to the holidays.

As a health journalist who examines disease outbreaks, I know epidemics are a prime breeding ground for disinformation. As a journalism professor, I teach my students to expect and examine false and inflated claims that invariably surface during every major epidemic. Touting unconfirmed preventative measures and treatments proved dangerous in previous major epidemics including Ebola, SARS, influenza and AIDS, as it does today.

Responsible reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic not only surveys the day’s events, but also interprets data, and analyzes the consequences for the public. Health journalists literate in scientific method, research ethics, epidemiology and social determinants are less likely to be duped by misinformation, and ultimately report better-informed stories, leading to a more media literate public. Without more health-literate journalists, this pandemic will continue to be compounded by the current health communication disaster.

Journalism is at a crucible, but the challenge is surmountable. Journalists are the frontline workers in this illiteracy pandemic; their practices can redefine the way information is consumed. The profession can learn from history.

Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy ran circles around the press during the Cold War when he launched accusations that the U.S. government was infiltrated by Soviet spies. His unsubstantiated claims played into public fears.

McCarthy’s popularity rose because the press published his unsubstantiated claims, attempting to be neutral. It took time for the media to realize the public danger of reporting the claims rather than reporting the truth.

During today’s pandemic, when some government information is inaccurate and other sources are unreliable, the effects can be catastrophic. Toss in a presidential election and the result is an infodemic inextricably linked to the advancement of political agendas.

Public health measures that should be neutral are politicized and exacerbate the difficulty to detect the truth, especially as people gravitate to information confirming their values.

It is imperative for journalists to re-examine their role as guardians of truth, not impartiality. Not all statements deserve unfiltered airtime, regardless of who’s before the microphone. Not every point deserves equal consideration if it counters truth.

While many news organizations have provided a national and global picture of the pandemic, they cannot replace one of the best defenses to strengthen media literacy during an infodemic: local news. Local journalists ‘on the ground’ have the advantage of knowing the landscape. They can insist on transparency and accountability from local officials largely because they live, work, and build families in the communities they cover.

The public finds local news more trustworthy. Good local journalism builds trust and knowledge, which are both critical components of literacy.

The health of local journalism is critical to a community’s news literacy. Yet, in communities across this nation, local news outlets that suffered before the pandemic are in worse shape now.

Dozens of communities have seen outlets shutter completely and many operations are hanging by threads.

During previous epidemics, community engagement through local journalism played a critical role. During the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, agencies began partnering with local media and journalists and a once distrustful, skeptical, and at times hostile public became more likely to comply with life-saving public health measures.

As scientists race to find viable therapeutics and vaccines to COVID-19, so too must media practitioners devise viable systems to protect our society from the harms of disinformation. And, as public health officials recommend good hygiene to curb the outbreak, so too must journalists serve as sanitizing stations to reality, not neutrality.

Lara Salahi, Ed.D., assistant professor at Endicott College in Beverly and a working journalist, is co-author of the book, Outbreak Culture: The Ebola Crisis and the Next Epidemic, which sheds light on pandemics and the response to outbreaks.



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