Information hygiene: managing news intake during a pandemic

You may be experiencing information fatigue at this very moment. Every news outlet in the world is covering the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly every story is about the pandemic, or about some aspect of it. If you tune in to the news so you can feel connected to the world or find the facts you need, you will be flooded with information. If you try to do your own research to find answers, you risk falling down a rabbit hole of unemployment numbers, hand washing guidelines, potential coronavirus-fighting drugs, morbidity statistics, and constantly shifting government policies. So much is uncertain. So much is changing. It’s easy to get overwhelmed.

I hope you’re staying home as much as you can, doing your bit to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. But I also hope that you’re building your networks, organizing, and planning for the future. There has never been a time in our lives when the world was quite so ripe for massive, worldwide social change – but the form that change takes will depend greatly on who is organizing it, and on their political and societal goals.  So maybe you need to step up and get busy!
Morning light on the books by Alan Levine, used under a Creative Commons license.

How can you do that, though, when it can be scary to leave your house?  When police may stop you just for being outside?  When the critical needs of your community are massive, complex, and liable to shift at any time?  You need reliable sources of information.  And you need the skills to identify those sources, to digest and analyze what you find in them, and to share what you learn with other people.

Political activists are used to dealing with lots of information, but many of us manage by simply tolerating a consistently high level of news and data. That’s fine, until it’s not fine. If your news and information input suddenly goes up a lot –say because the entire world is struggling to manage a highly contagious virus and in the process exposing the gross inequities in human societies and the cracks in our fragile systems of social support– you might end up over your limit. Without new strategies to manage the information flow, you may find yourself depressed, anxious, unable to sleep (or all three). 

You need a plan.  I can help you with that!

I’m a librarian, and I have spent my career helping people find, evaluate, understand, and think about information. The main way that I do this is by helping people create a systematic approach to navigating the world of information. This method works for any information problem –including the challenge of dealing with the onslaught of data, news stories, graphs, analysis, maps, testimonials, modelling studies, reports, and so on, related to the coronavirus pandemic. What follows are some basics to get you started.

Think about what you actually need to know

Don’t be tempted to absorb as much information as you can about everything. A strategic approach is likely to be more fruitful, and much less stressful.  So think about what you need to know. Different types of questions require different types of sources. For example, are there constantly changing issues that you want to monitor?  Then you need a reliable news source you can visit regularly for updates.

But a general news source is probably not the best place to turn when you need answers to specific technical questions. Prioritize your information needs. You have a lot of questions, but not all of them are urgent. First, think carefully about all the things you wish you knew about the novel coronavirus, about the pandemic, and about how it’s affecting human society. Then consider, which things are the most important or time-sensitive?

If it’s hard to prioritize, think about why you care about each issue. Recognize that this can be complex: sometimes you need information about one topic before you can begin to formulate your questions on a secondary topic. And you may want to start by investigating questions that will help you take action on a political priority. Once you have a sense for your most urgent questions, focus on those until you have them resolved. Don’t let yourself get sidetracked or overwhelmed.

Identify a few trusted sources you can rely on

Everyone needs a few good sources for general news. You already have favorite websites, magazines, or radio shows you visit regularly. If you judiciously consume news from a few reliable sources, you can slow your intake while still getting high-quality information on a regular basis. Choose two or three good news sources and use them to ensure that you’re getting a good breadth of stories.  Make sure your list is relatively short: you should have just enough exposure to news to stay generally informed, but not so much that you become overwhelmed.

To select the best sources, you’ll need a method for assessing them. Find out who creates the news source. If they have a website, read the “about” page. Do you trust them? Think about why the people behind the news source created it. What is their mission? Is the source written from a specific perspective, and if so, is it useful to you to hear that point of view? Challenge yourself to strategically and thoughtfully consider news that is written for an audience of people who are different from you. 

You may also want to think about how your news source presents information. Are the articles clearly written?  When a story includes information from a source, is it clear who that source is? Are the charts, graphs, or illustrations useful and easy to understand? Think about more than just the content of the stories; be critical about the methods the editors and authors use to communicate with their audience.

Carefully consider what other sources you need to consult

Sometimes your small group of trusted news sources will not cut it. When you need facts, technical data, or answers to specific questions, you may need to go looking for information. One great way to get started is to ask yourself, who is likely to care about this issue? Be creative as you consider this question.

Say you want to know the precise mechanisms that are driving higher COVID-19 death rates in Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities –not just the concept of structural racism, but the specific factors that affect people’s health situations.

So ask yourself: who do you think cares about this issue? Advocacy groups that focus on illuminating and combating racial inequities might have produced analysis, statistical data, or policy statements that could be helpful to your research. Think tanks or research institutes could be another source for analysis and data, especially if you can find a research organization that focuses on racial equity in health care, or on the health of Indigenous, Latinx, or Black people in particular. Individual activists and advocates for racial equity may have written or spoken about the issue of racial disparities in COVID-19 death rates recently.

News organizations that focus on specific racial and ethnic communities might also be good sources for analysis and opinions.  Or, you might try looking for articles, books, data, and research about the broader range of racial inequities in health and health care – these may illuminate details about structural restrictions on access to care, racism on the part of practitioners, environmental health factors, and the like. These are just a few ideas. When you ponder the question of who might create and publish information about an issue that interests you, you will surely come up with an even wider range of possibilities.

No matter what topic you want to look into, it is valuable to start by spending some time thinking carefully about who might produce information on the subject, and what form that information might take. A strategic approach can help make your research more efficient, and can also help you find useful data and stories that would otherwise be hard to locate.

Ask for help

I hope that your local public library is closed. But even if it is, some of the staff there are probably still working. Did you know that most public libraries will answer your questions by phone, chat, or email? You can ask for help finding information about any topic, for free, just like you would if you visit the library in person. And, if you use chat, you can probably do it anonymously. Most libraries call this service “Ask a Librarian” or something similar.

If your library’s website doesn’t say anything about “Ask a Librarian,” look for their contact or help page. If you can’t find an Ask a Librarian service at your local public library, look for a state- or region-wide service. Many U.S. states run a service that you can use to chat with a librarian or to ask a question by email– they’re often managed by the state library.

Don’t be shy about using libraries to support your research. Public libraries’ missions are focused on serving their communities, and that includes you. Feel free to come back as often as you like, and ask as many questions as you want, on any topic. Library staff are trained to help you, and chances are they’d love for you to be a regular.

Help other people

Before you share news and data with others, think about what you’re sharing and why. If you see something that sounds astonishing or hard to believe, do a little research before you share it, so that you can be sure you’re not spreading rumors or lies. Cite your sources, so that people can learn more if they want to. Share your tips about being a critical and thoughtful user of news and information.

And be mindful of other people’s needs and interests. Some folks love to hear all the details, no matter what. Others find that limiting their intake of potentially-stressful information helps them maintain their peace of mind. Ask your friends, comrades, and family if they want to hear the news you have to share, and then respect their boundaries.

Good personal information hygiene, like any form of self-care, will provide you with the space and the tools to help care for others. And a strategic approach to news and data gathering can help you be more efficient and effective in your political work to build a better world.

Author Bio:

Emily-Jane Dawson is a public librarian in Portland, Oregon, who has been involved in left-wing politics for her entire adult life.  She loves the hunt for helpful data, but at the moment she is carefully rationing her intake of pandemic-related statistics.