COVID-19 Research Refresher: How to Determine if Sources are Credible
What a wonderful time to be a writer!
Yes, we have a deadly global pandemic looming over us, coloring every part of our lives, but we also have a unique opportunity to bring truth, clarity, and transparency to the public to help them better understand what is happening in their world and how they can protect their families. However, opening this door does bring with it certain challenges – and great responsibility.
The COVID-19 pandemic is serious. While some may have had their doubts early on, most people would be hard-pressed to deny it now. The thousands of deaths in the United States alone are a testament to its severity and the threat it poses to public health across the world. This puts writers in the unique position of having to carefully weigh and measure every article we read and source we turn to for information about the pandemic, ensuring that the information is not only accurate but also the most up-to-date.
See, COVID-19 isn’t the only virus out there; misinformation is just as detrimental and spreads just as quickly. With so much emphasis on fake news lately, it would seem everyone would be carefully considering the accuracy and timeliness of the information they read and share. Unfortunately, that isn’t always true. Many people will just accept what is handed to them and don’t bother to do any fact-checking.
This puts the burden of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the writer.
That’s why I figured it was the perfect time for a little refresher on how to effectively conduct and verify the research that you use when writing articles about COVID-19 (or any other important and complex topic, for that matter).
Conducting Responsible Research on Coronavirus (And Other Important Topics)
Responsible research means verifying every single source and double (or triple) checking every single claim. It involves using only credible sources and doing everything within your power to ensure accuracy in every word you write.
If that sounds like a pretty tall order, it’s because it is.
When you begin viewing every bit of information with a critical eye, you will see just how much fake news really is out there – or at the very least, half-truths. You’ll also start to notice just how many writers take shortcuts or don’t bother to thoroughly vet their sources. They print misinformation that gets shared over and over again, perpetuating the inaccuracies.
We saw firsthand just how dangerous misinformation can be when the novel coronavirus first came to the United States. And we are still seeing these coronavirus myths nearly four months into the pandemic. Today, we are still seeing pure, unadulterated panic that continues to leave our grocery store shelves bare, forcing the rationing of certain products like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, bottled water, and even bread.
On a darker note, we have also seen how inaccurate stories about the coronavirus outbreak can impact the lives and safety of others. For instance, it was reported that COVID actually means “Chinese-Originated Viral Infectious Disease,” which led to brutal attacks on people of Asian descent across the country. (Just for the record, COVID-19 is simply an acronym assigned by the World Health Organization (WHO) for coronavirus disease 2019.) And the panic that is fueled by misinformation has also caused a shortage of face masks, which are essential for healthcare workers who come in close contact with COVID-19 patients to protect themselves.
The sad thing is that it is just the tip of the iceberg. There has been no shortage of rumors and half-truths in the COVID-19 updates we get from different sources. And this misinformation has the potential to significantly impact global health (and healthcare providers) by leaving individuals uneducated and unprepared for the pandemic.
This is why responsible research is so important. Below, I’ll discuss just a few of the ways that writers can make sure they are doing their part to stop the spread of misinformation.
Use multiple resources.
Using more than one resource can give you a much clearer, more comprehensive picture of the situation that you’re writing about. It also allows you to verify claims and debunk misinformation. Using a single source is a dangerous practice. You may not get a full understanding of the topic, or the information that you get from the source may not be entirely accurate.
The last thing you want is to write a researched article only to discover that it is shortsighted, lacking key information, or containing inaccuracies. If you want to be taken seriously as a research writer, you can’t afford to do anything halfway. You need to spend time finding multiple reliable sources that allow you to write an unbiased overview of the topic.
Identify credible research sources.
One of the most important steps in the responsible research process is verifying that each is credible and accurate, containing the latest information. You can do this by taking a look at the different elements of the source:
- Type of source – Look primarily for scholarly journals, clinical trials, reports, and papers written by SMEs (subject matter experts) that are backed by information from other experts. Blog posts and online news articles are often considered credible, depending on the author and organization they’re attached to.
- Author – Do a little research on the author of the article. Are they an expert in their field? Do they have a degree in the topic or a career that involves dealing with the topic first-hand? Are they a respected journalist that focuses on this topic? If the author is credible, there’s a good chance that the information is as well.
- Date – Generally speaking, the more current the information, the better. Information that is two to three years old is usually OK for most topics, but the older it gets, the more outdated it can be. In the case of content regarding the coronavirus, you want to look for the most up-to-date information down to the hour.
- Organization – What organization is putting out the source information? If the organization is biased or has a certain agenda, there’s a good chance that the information in their sources is also biased. Instead, look for organizations that you can trust to provide accurate and timely information. In the case of COVID-19, you might look to your county health department, state department, or another local health department website for accurate information about your area. For general information about coronavirus, look to organizations like WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Website – Sites that end in .com, .org, and .net are not always considered to be credible sources. That’s because these sites can be created by anyone, regardless of their credentials. However, there are obviously exceptions, like the American Mathematical Society uses a .org and the Smithsonian Magazine is a .com. When possible, look for websites ending in .edu or .gov as these denote a governmental organization.
Before you take the plunge and use a source, scrutinize it to make sure it is credible. The author or authors should be clearly visible, and it should have citations to verify any claims made. Don’t trust the source just based on the organization or website. For instance, an article on the American Cancer Society website may not have as much support for its claims, but the site itself is trustworthy. As a best practice, look at each element of the source to help you determine if it is credible.
Do not take any claim at face value. People make mistakes, they deceive, they forget, they misspeak – any number of things can go wrong and lead to unfounded, untrue claims in your piece of content. If you see a claim that doesn’t seem like common sense, research it further to look for any high-level research that supports the truthfulness of the claim.
Pretend that you are about to post something on your social media channels, and your followers are going to fact-check you and expose you for posting fake news. That will ensure that you have done the necessary responsible research and have information to back up what you are saying.
Get information straight from the experts.
When it comes to research, interviews are solid gold. Try to get an interview with an SME on the topic you are handling. This doesn’t necessarily mean an in-person or telephone interview. You can send your source a few questions and ask if they would rather respond via email. If they choose to complete the interview through email, you should follow up with any additional questions or items that need clarification before using their interview as part of your research. Many experts may prefer an email interview as it is usually more convenient for everyone.
When interviewing experts, you shouldn’t expect your source to fully educate you on the topic, but rather give you an expert’s insight that can’t be gleaned from your own research. In other words, do your homework before interviewing anyone. Come to the table with some understanding of your subject matter. Research your topic from several angles (i.e. scientific and news) so that you know the right questions to ask and you allow the SME to enhance your research, not write your article.
Verify your sources.
Anyone can put anything on the Internet. We all know that. But what this means for writers is an additional burden to verify sources – yes, even those .gov and .edu ones so you need to check and double-check to ensure you have credible sources. If you are using a scholarly journal for a source, take a few minutes to check out the author.
I once found what I thought was a great source for a health article. The author’s information seemed solid, it was well written, and his research appeared to have a firm foundation.
Then I did some research on him.
Yikes! This man lost his medical license several years earlier because he was using some of his patients as guinea pigs to further his research, and several of them died. What’s more, he had falsified results of clinical trials and got in a lot of trouble for some very sketchy research and reporting. He appealed and got his license back, but he seemed to be under fire again. It was a mess!
Needless to say, I did not use him or his material for my article. It wasn’t worth the risk. I wanted to maintain the integrity of the research, so I looked to more credible sources. This was a lesson in responsible research that taught me to be careful about trusting information even if it comes from an “expert.”
Double-check your data.
Unfortunately, if you want to conduct responsible research, you must look at every new piece of information with a critical eye. From your source to the data they are reporting, everything should be under strict scrutiny. Look for any bias that may be present and try to corroborate any information you find with other sources.
In some cases, this may not be possible, especially if the idea or trend is fairly new. For instance, cannabis has quite a bit of impressive scientific support for its pain-relieving qualities, but little research exists regarding using it for migraine pain. This is a fairly new area that researchers are only beginning to explore. Because of that, it may be difficult to find data to support the claims that are made in your sources.
If that is the case, then your language should reflect that it is a fairly new area of research, explain the findings, say more research needs to be conducted to get a more accurate picture – you get the idea. Even if you are using the CDC, WHO, and the Department of Health and Human Services as sources, you still need to double-check your data – and not just a website that uses the data as a source for their article. It needs to be independent, unrelated research in order to make an effective corroboration.
Writers Can Calm the COVID-19 Storm with Responsible Research
Writers who tackle current issues, particularly those pertaining to health, are often looked upon as authorities – whether you want that responsibility or not. It is up to you to provide your readers with the most updated information from the most credible sources, whether your topic is a global pandemic like the coronavirus or the detriment of obesity in our society.
People tend to fear what they don’t understand. Fear leads to panic and panic to chaos. As a writer, you can be the calm in that storm by providing accurate and timely information that you have thoroughly vetted through responsible research.
When your writing shows up in print (or on a blog or webpage), people are going to believe it. And many will never even question the content’s validity. That’s why we need responsible research now more than ever.
Stephanie M works with businesses to create web content that leaps off the page (or screen) to inform, educate, and engage, leading to social sharing, conversion, and return visits. She does this through blog posts, articles, social media management, website content, press releases – you get the idea. Her work as an analyst/disaster response specialist with FEMA in Washington, D.C. gives her a unique insight into disaster prep, response, and recovery. She helped individuals and businesses recovering from major disasters (including hurricanes Katrina and Sandy) and provided educational material for disaster prep.