Q&A: Providing critical COVID-19 info to the communities that need it most

by | Feb 2, 2021 | Blog, Mediactive

Health journalists during the COVID-19 pandemic have faced seemingly insurmountable challenges. They are, of course, tasked with delivering critical health news and information to their communities. But these same journalists are simultaneously correcting the record of coronavirus misinformation — erroneous information often coming from elected officials.

And, for Side Effects Public Media in Indianapolis, it’s a job done in multiple languages, in multiple formats. Led by WYFI Public Media, the news initiative strives to help people navigate the increasingly confusing world of health information. This process starts with engaging the public and providing the resources they need to become their own health advocates. 

As part of our Mediactive speaker series, we spoke to the new outlet’s Managing Editor Dave Rosenthal and Community Engagement Specialist Brittani Howell. Watch the full Q&A session in partnership with America Amplified here.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

Q: How do you deal with misinformation that comes from officials?

Rosenthal: Part of our job as journalists is to challenge the officials as they talk about a certain problem. I’ve been doing investigative journalism for a long time and found that officials will try to downplay a problem if it’s inconvenient, which happens in any number of issues. The ones related to coronavirus that we’ve taken a closer look at are prisons, the health conditions inside prisons, nursing homes, meatpacking plants and migrant farm workers. 

We listened to what the officials were saying, but we also looked at the data that we could get from the government and from independent experts in academia and other places. Then, we send out reporters to these places, which can be challenging. You can’t get into a prison very easily, but you can talk to people who have relatives inside the prison or people who work there to get a sense of what’s going on. We also sent reporters to the small towns in Missouri and Iowa where the meatpacking plants are located. Often they’re Spanish speakers, so we had a reporter who speaks Spanish from our station in Missouri go out and talk to them. We did the same thing for migrant farm workers, interviewing them at the camps and hotels where they live. That’s one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about journalism: questioning the officials and trying to get the story from the people who are really affected.  

Q: How have you helped the community better cope with today’s flood of COVID misinformation?

Rosenthal: We’ve done that in a number of different ways. We’ve created a partnership with Indianapolis Recorder, which is a 125-year-old newspaper for the Black community, and we work together to produce stories that are important to their audience. We’ve also made FAQs to distribute to community organizations and translated a number of them into Spanish. Additionally, there’s a tight-knit community of Burmese refugees in Indianapolis. So to give them the right information about COVID, we have translated some of our materials into the Hakha Lai, which is a common language used among Burmese immigrants. 

When you’re working with a non-traditional community, you have to be creative about how you can distribute the information. And that’s one of the challenges in dealing with misinformation as well. How do you reach the people who really need it? It’s hard enough for English speakers who are used to dealing with traditional English language media to figure out what’s misinformation. Just think how hard it is for someone who is coming here and learning about our culture and learning the language. So we’re trying to reach Burmese immigrants in their own language, in places where they trust people — churches, community associations, that sort of thing.


Q: So, part of helping the community is using creative communication. Can you tell us about your texting initiative, Midwest Checkup

Howell: I guess I’ll start by focusing on my favorite part of the text group, which is that it does allow you to be really nimble in the way you communicate with large groups of people. And then as they start replying to you, some pretty obvious trends appear depending on the size of your group. Some people will respond very much in the same vein, like at the early part of the pandemic. We asked, “What do you want to know about?” And you could sort that into some pretty definite buckets. 

Some people wanted to know how to stay safe, some wanted to know if they’d have to go back to work. Others asked where you could get tested, which is my favorite question because our text group records their zip code. That’s some of the introductory information we ask for when they sign up. So someone was able to text me saying, “I really don’t know where to get tested.” I could look up their zip code and send them the testing locations closest to them and say, “OK, so these are where they are, these are their hours, and these are the qualifications you have to meet in order to get tested.” And I was able to just put that right back in their hands.

We had a couple of very personal questions come in from people concerned about mental health during the pandemic. Different states have different rules around what is and isn’t covered by insurance, so I was able to look up Indiana’s insurance policies and help them out. For example, “Does Medicare and Medicaid cover mental health right now?” And in a lot of cases, it did, and they were able to access telehealth therapy. A couple people texted back that they had been looking for exactly that. And it was really great to be able to reassure people and give them the information they needed to be their own best advocate.


4 steps to become a debunk detective

Don’t only rely on others to do the work for you — instead, put the power of fact-checking into your own hands. Here are Howell’s four practical tips to quickly vet information. 

  1. Look for the helpers.
    “As a local outlet, it would be a pretty tall order for Side Effects to go through and debunk all of the rumors that come our way. But luckily, there are some people who are collecting those rumors, debunking them and keeping all of that in a searchable database,” she says. Howell points to Johns Hopkins, The World Health Organization and First Draft as valuable tools for documenting and correcting misinformation. Another option: Poynter’s Coronavirus Facts Alliance, which shows where specific rumors started and how and when they spread across the globe.
  1. Check your emotions.
    When you see a piece of questionable information, stop and ask yourself: How does it make you feel? If the social media post or blog elicits anger, sadness or any other strong emotion, know that the author may be playing with your emotions on purpose. Sit with it! “Do some more digging and don’t share it right away until you can verify what’s going on,” Howell says.
  1. Do a reverse image search.
    If you stumble across an image that seems fishy, it’s easy to do a reverse image search and check for the original source. Simply download the image, go to Google, and insert the picture into the search bar. Google will display all the instances where the picture occurred.  “And you can start tracking back to where it initially came from and the context in which it initially appeared,” Howell explains. On some images, you can also right-click and select “Search Google for this image.”
  1. Trust your instincts.
    It’s important to trust yourself and be your own fact-checker. “When you get curious, doubtful, or suspicious, follow your impulse,” Howell says. “You probably have a better radar for this than you think you do. And if not, you’ll definitely develop one just by practicing these kinds of skills over and over again.”