Our country’s chaotic, uncoordinated, and largely ineffectual response to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to finger pointing on all sides, as well as a sense that our institutions have let us down. In this episode we take a closer look at the media, and the central role it plays in our ability to make sense of what is happening. How should we evaluate the media’s coverage of the pandemic, and how can we all become more savvy media consumers?
Joining us to help make sense of these questions is Dr. Timothy Caulfield, Professor of Law at University of Alberta, Canada, Research Director of the Health Law Institute and current Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy. He is the author of the national bestseller The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness (Penguin 2012) and Relax, Dammit! A User’s Guide to the Age of Anxiety (Penguin Random House, 2020).
Protecting Yourself from Misinformation
One of the many ways the media captures our attention and steers us away from hard facts is with testimonials. Compelling stories about individual peoples’ experiences can pass for evidence, overwhelming our scientific and critical thinking. What we should really be looking at, says Dr. Caulfield, are good, randomized clinical trials. “Observational studies mix correlation with causation all the time,” says Dr. Caulfield. “In health, a lot of the research that get headlines are observational studies. They can be useful and give you a sense of what is going on, but an observational study isn’t really strong data.”
Traditional news media outlets also play on our negativity bias. Negative headlines tend to get more traction and perform better than positive headlines. “The misrepresentation of risk, the misrepresentation of issues, can really skew public perception,” says Dr. Caulfield. “And then when you mix in conspiracy theories and the fact that everyone is already stressed out and the fact that the science is uncertain – it becomes an incredibly chaotic information environment.”
Popular Culture and Normalization
One of the things that pop culture does especially well during a public health crisis is normalization, explains Dr. Caulfield. “Normalization of things like wearing a mask, normalization of things like understanding the social inequities that are out there when you have a public health crisis like this, normalization of things like physical distancing, and normalizing that ‘civic duty’,” says Dr. Caulfield. “Pop culture is almost at its best, I think, when you see it playing that role in our public discourse.”
Simple Rules of Thumb for Evaluating the News
What are some simple ways we can all evaluate how well our community is doing during this crisis? One tip is to apply critical thinking skills to any news story we might encounter about COVID, or even about health more generally. We can ask questions like, what kind of study was it? Was it a big study? Was it an observational study? “The good news is, most public health authorities around the world are trying to do exactly that,” says Dr. Caulfield. “They are focusing on that body of evidence and aggregating this uncertain science in a responsible manner. I think we really can turn to regional public health authorities to help inform us about what is going on. My sense is, it hasn’t been perfect, but most public health authorities are trying to do a good job.”
Tips for Staying Sane in a Chaotic Information Environment
So how can we cope with information overload, of both good AND bad information? According to Dr. Caulfield, recognizing the negativity bias that rules the media landscape, and even taking extended breaks from social media in general, can have positive effects on mental wellbeing during this especially challenging time.
Typical mental health strategies like exercise, healthy diet, and good sleep, which may seem obvious, are so important because of how basic they are. “Our chaotic information environment pulls us away from those basic strategies that benefit all of us,” says Dr. Caulfield.
“I really think people need to pause, relax and reflect,” Dr. Caulfield recommends. “That may sound overly simplistic, but there’s actually good data to support the idea that if we can nudge people to pause and reflect, they’re less likely to spread misinformation and less likely to internalize misinformation.” There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that this simple, straightforward strategy can have a meaningful impact on halting the spread of misinformation.
“If people can do that,” says Dr. Caulfield, “I think it will have an impact on their own metal health, and also allow them to look more critically at the information that they do see.”
No time to listen to the full episode? Here’s a short video excerpt.