By Gary Epler, M.D., Harvard Medical School and Trond A. Undheim, Ph.D., Futurist, Founder of Yegii, Inc.
The media universe is drawn to negativity. Bloggers exploit this fully, but national media also pick extreme angles. What are the steps to take in order to select and verify the news you read right now?
As the coronavirus crisis is fast moving and threatens millions of people in America and around the globe, the public and experts alike need trustable information. Yet, too much news is reported with headlines and stories geared towards obtaining viral clicks and high media ratings. Often, this is accomplished by omitting facts and adding negatively biased information.
Truly fake news, as in news without any basis in facts, has dangerous consequences. However, even relentless negative news is a health hazard. Negative words that provoke action and clicks include anger, frustration and fear. Important words that don’t get as many clicks because they are more complex include sadness, confusion, shame and guilt – and even include positive feelings such as contentment, satisfaction, joy, happiness and excitement. When it comes to health news, fake news could lead you to make life altering decisions based on false premises. The need for good information is more real than ever.
Trust in media is in decline. A Pew Research Center study on The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online found that experts are evenly split on whether the coming decade will see a reduction in false and misleading narratives online. What would it take to tip the balance in the right direction? One word – trust. We have devised five trust strategies:
• Rely on good sources – reputable media with a reliable track record
• Trust primary sources more than indirect knowledge
• Make up your own mind, base your opinions on primary sources and studies, not on other people’s opinions
• Don’t spread rumor or hearsay, even if it makes for a good story
• Tackle negative stress by an equal amount of a positive response
We need to be mindful of what it takes to produce facts and truths. One of the authors, Dr. Epler, has worked closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If, for example, the CDC in Atlanta receives a report of an individual with coronavirus, a rigorous confirmation process begins. If one day later, an internet headline (from some random source) states a new case of coronavirus has been reported and includes the age and location, the story is suddenly out in the open. What happens then? Well, first, the site receives millions of clicks. Disease sells because it is about life and death, which matters a lot to us as a society. Later during the day, the word dying (a high-click word) is included in the headline and million more clicks are registered. Three days later, the headline states that the case wasn’t reported. The site received, let’s say, five million clicks. The next day, the word angry (a highly viral term) is added to the headline, producing ten million clicks, perhaps more.
Each and every one of these internet headlines is “wrong” from a factual standpoint, or, at least not verified, and should never have been posted. But since they continue to be, we need to focus on increased vigilance and our own reactions to it. People often believe reports that have the most views. This is basic psychology. It’s called social proof. In the meantime, let’s say the CDC did not confirm the case. None of the serology tests were positive. Further review discovered a faulty thermometer reading, and nothing related to a coronavirus infection.
How to generate positivity out of negativity and danger?
Why do we care so much? The fact is that research by one of the authors, Dr. Epler shows that these negative (if unfounded) “health reports” from random bloggers cause stress. Unchecked stress causes the cortisol inflammation response leading to heart disease, strokes, cancer, and shortened life span. However, following Eplerian philosophy you must immediately mitigate bad stress by positive stress, which entails shifting the thinking away from yourself and towards helping others and serving the community. In Trond’s upcoming book Disruption Games: How to Thrive on Serial Failure, he offers strategies to proactively learn from mistakes. Separately, he is developing tools to distill only the information that matters, through his collective intelligence platform, Yegii. Learning is the silver lining to any crisis.
Good information takes time to develop
Reporting public health information requires a careful balance of under reporting and over reporting. The decision to report a connection between a product and an adverse health reaction is complex, involving the number of cases, geographic location, scientific plausibility, temporal relationship, and other case-specific information. Thoughtful studies take time and expense. As millions of people may be at risk, information about a relationship between a product and a serious adverse health event may be reported without scientific proof. The upside of this early reporting is discontinuation of a hazardous product and saving lives. If not confirmed, the downside consequences include discontinuing a beneficial product, lawsuits, bankrupt companies, and a confused public. Public health officials must weigh these decisions carefully because terrorist threats, potentially hazardous products, and potential disease outbreaks occur on an everyday basis.
In conclusion, to what degree should you trust in public health stories in media during a crisis? We recommend sticking to the five trust strategies: rely on good sources, trust primary sources the most, make up your own mind, tackle negative stress by an equal amount of a positive response, and don’t spread rumor or hearsay. Primary source news may be tedious and technical but is the only kind of news you should rely on in times of crisis.