Expert: Six essential media literacy skills for COVID-19 and other crises

Release Date: March 16, 2020

Portrait of UB researcher Helen Wang.
Always check multiple sources, not just the one you like
Helen Wang, PhD, associate professor of communication
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The general public is receiving information about COVID-19 at a blistering pace and from many different news sources. Factor in amplification from social media — which is how many people receive the news — and it can be difficult to discern what news stories are accurate.

Helen Wang, associate professor in the Department of Communication in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, says doing some quick research and practicing a little bit of mindfulness are essential skills when navigating the today’s somewhat confusing media landscape. 

Wang offers the following tips that she believes are essential media skills for COVID-19 and other crisis. 

1) Always go back to the original source if possible

“This means if Washington Post is citing World Health Organization [WHO], go read on WHO’s website. If CNBC is quoting the Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention [CDC], go check out what CDC said. So and so study found — find the study and read its abstract and conclusion sections yourself,” Wang says.

2) Always check multiple sources, not just the one you like

“This means compare the same issue from government officials with health professionals, the scientific community and independent media reporting, etc. Multiple means not just the number of sources but also different types of information sources,” Wang says.

3) Pay attention to the time stamp on the news reports to account for the nature of emergence in crisis events

“This means check the date and time posted on the article along with the writer’s name and affiliation. News in this hour can be very different from the news two hours later. Often the updated version not only provides new information as it comes in but adjustments and corrections of previous reports,” Wang says.

4) Take everything with a grain of salt

“We cannot believe nothing but we also cannot believe everything that is being said by any one source. Think about it, WHO and CDC get their numbers from the countries being affected; the Chinese CDC, for example, would get their numbers from the local officials, so on and so forth. We know every step of the way, there is a chance of human error and lack of transparency,” Wang says.

5) Be mindful and exercise self-care.

“Media content featuring crisis situations is easily stress-inducing. Pay attention to your triggers. Notice the thoughts and emotions in your automatic response. Pause for a moment and recognize how negative thoughts and emotions are manifesting in your body. Take simple steps to care for your well-being. Maybe put the phone down for a few hours. Maybe take a few deep breaths and clear your head. Maybe make a hot chocolate and remind yourself how grateful you are with all that you have right now. Whatever works for you,” Wang says.

6) Spread kindness, not fear.

“Please forgive me for saying this, but the Chinese expression for the word “crisis” has two characters, one means danger and the other means opportunity. A time like this is an opportunity for us to reflect on the most fundamental values in humanity, to make choices that honor our beliefs, to share collective wisdom and practical strategies to cope together, and to rise up high and support each other in the face of fear and paranoia,” Wang says.

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Barbara Branning
Media Relations
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