The news is still not useful (during the COVID-19 pandemic)

By Luis Thiam-Nye on 3 May 2020
The reasons why I continue to avoid the news during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how I really keep up to date with relevant information.

As you may have gotten the impression, I do not follow the news. For what ridiculous reason would I trust these mass-media outlets to deliver what I need in an appropriate form?

Often, the content you find on these news sites is mere noise. It's a poisonous ocean designed to waste your time when you have nothing better to do. Moreover, the theses wide-audience news articles present the information for your entertainment, not your education.

https://www.crypticbutter.com/why-avoid-the-news/

In other words, the journalist wants to draw you in by tugging on your emotions. Only secondarily does the journalist want to provide potentially useful information in a clear and easily searchable manner.

If there are any potentially important things I should know about, I hear from other people. The prime example of this is COVID-19.

Tip: curate your news feed with things that deserve your attention using a service such as Google Alerts.

Now having heard about the significant event everyone is talking about, I could proceed to do my own research…

Digging Deep Into COVID-19 Myself

Firstly, I leveraged the power of search engines, which lead me along the path of scanning a few news articles. While these articles gave a general (albeit fragmented) picture of the issue, I did not feel like I was getting the full extent of reliable information around.

After all, news outlets are making a business out of your attention.

However, this initial step of getting the big picture lead me onto the second step of my journey: consulting reliable, virtually first-hand sources.

When you are on the lookout for information, always check the source that acts as the foundation for what the person is claiming. In the case of news articles, the information never comes from the journalist; often, a link to the original source will be subtly included somewhere in the body of the text.

Sometimes, you may even find a list of references at the bottom of the page, depending on the website. Wikipedia is a good example of this: it brings together tonnes of information and puts it in one place — very useful indeed!

So, you could just take Wikipedia’s word for it, or you can use it as a tool to track down the primary sources (citations indicated in square brackets). Then, you can be the critical thinker and judge the quality of the information yourself.

Finding Official Sources

Anyway, my mild endeavour brought me along to the World Health Organisation. Seeing that they are a credible international organisation consisting of many knowledgeable scientists, I have a high degree of trust that they know what they are doing and can make sensible judgements.

(Though, keep in mind that an organisation being large and impartial does not mean that it is infallible: society has many problems; humans are humans.)

The reasons that the WHO went on to be my main source of COVID-19-related information come down to the following:

  • The WHO provide a large volume of information on the topic.
  • The information is often concise for the public’s consumption — and it is relatively easy and straightforward to find.
  • Compared to the alternatives (news reporters, your neighbour Bob the Pancake Man etc), I consider the WHO to be the most trustworthy source; it is globally recognised and provides information that journalists use for their reports.
  • I can assume that the WHO have access to an expansive soup of information that I do not. Further, I expect that it can make sense of that information in a way I cannot, given that human health is its speciality.

Playing the Game of “What’s Most Likely?”

To elaborate on that final point, it is important that I acknowledge that I (and most of the public) are ignorant to the full scope of the situation. In fact, very few people will have an utterly complete and comprehensive knowledge and understanding of everything related to COVID-19.

Slight correction: not one person can possibly know everything there is to know.

I understand this, so I try to refrain from making quick judgements or forming uninformed, ignorant opinions on a certain matter — hence why all the talk forced me to do my own proactive research.

In reality, the game of information comes down to probabilities and common sense:

  1. What is most likely to be true, given all the information I can find available to me?
  2. Where does it make the most sense to go and find reliable information without wasting my time?

Moreover, health-related information is not the only thing you ought to filter and sanitise: when the government starts bringing out advice to the public, followed by laws, that’s sort of important.

Since I live in the country where the laws and guidelines are indeed taking effect, I ought to pay attention.

This is a unique fast-paced situation. Combined with something as powerful as law, I cannot afford to simply hear about updates from the neighbourhood clown. What is required of me as a UK citizen could change at any day: the government have the power make an announcement and put a ruling into effect immediately.

Let’s imagine that I decide to take my theoretical friend’s word for it.

One day, he theoretically says to me, “Yo, the big man from up top said we’re not allowed to go outside except for food and exercise!”

On one hand, I did indeed get the general point of the government’s immediately effective isolation ruling, announced the day before. On the other hand, the information has gone through several imperfect human conduits — and thus it has probably become distorted.

For instance, one could ask a fruity range of questions about that statement:

  • What constitutes exercise?
  • What sort of food?
  • Can I go out as many times as I please?
  • How long does the rules last?
  • What is the penalty for disobeying?

My Only Regular Source of COVID-19 Information

With regard to the highly influential COVID-19, there is the one obvious place, as a UK resident, to find information that I can trust: the government website (https://www.gov.uk/covid19).

Now that’s just plain sense.

While the information may not necessarily be the clearest or most comprehensive that it could be, it is the best there is — the government’s own words.

More specifically, you could go and sign yourself up to the government’s COVID-19 newsletter. This will do wonders for saving yourself from spending the energy checking anything new and relevant each day.

I will note, however, that I usually never find any updates relevant to me since the initial burst of activity around the start of the lockdown policy.

Key Takeaways

This entire article constitutes an ongoing stream of consciousness. Nonetheless, I hope that you can learn something:

  1. Be sceptical of the stuff you hear about (especially if it comes from a news publisher or word-of-mouth),
  2. Stop your general consumption of the news. If there is an important topic you need to keep refreshed on, plan a system for finding that information without it eating up too much of your time.
  3. Maybe you don’t even need to do that. Some things may be better as an ongoing research project, such as learning about diet and nutrition.
  4. If you hear about something that could affect you — and it is of sufficient importance — do your own research: take the ideas that are circulating around and trace them back to their sources. You may find that reality is quite different from how you hear it presented.

And remember: I only made the measures described in this article for keeping up to date because I heard about something critically important. If something is trivial (which is most of the time) it is not worth “staying informed”.

For peace of mind, try out a curated news feed such as Google Alerts. Yes, I know it’s not perfect, so feel free to find something better before telling me about it!

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About the author

My name is Luis Thiam-Nye and I own this place.

@LuisThiamNyewww.LuisThiamNye.comGitHub

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