- 1 Step one: Identify reliable sources
- 2 Step two: Avoid unreliable information
- 3 Step three: Just be nice (read: don't read the comments)
First off, I know: Android Police is a website about Android, and Google, and mobile technology. But it's also a website where millions of people get fast, up-to-the-minute news about those topics, and that's a reputation we've come to pride ourselves on over the years. When it comes to gathering the news and reporting the facts, we have a decade of experience as an organization, and today I thought we'd do a little community service in bringing that skillset to bear in a way that could be useful during these very unusual (and kind of scary) times.
To be clear, this post is not about Doing The Clickbait. We won't be repromoting it, constantly blasting it on our social networks, or putting it at the top of the front page for weeks on end. This is something for our community of readers to, if they find it helpful, share with their friends and loved ones who may not be able to discern reliable and unreliable reporting in a time when the volume of both on this topic is skyrocketing. Our goal here isn't to frighten you or promote hysteria, it's to give you and others the tools to follow this topic in a reliable way.
Additionally, please know that this guide, being written by an American team, is principally aimed at our American readers. I do not believe it is fair of us to say we know how best to gather and analyze news in every region of the world, because we simply aren't familiar with the tools and mediums through which that news disseminates globally. We can speak with authority about the USA, and that's what we intend to do.
Step one: Identify reliable sources
The first, and obvious: National TV (... on mute)
The Mainstream Media(TM) gets a lot of flak (and often deservedly so), but organizations like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News do, at the end of the day, have a serious responsibility to report news developments in a way that does not involve flagrant lies or outright fabrication (I will not say the same for their opinion and talk show segments). Especially during a national crisis like the one we are facing now. These newsrooms have hundreds of full time desk reporters, fact checkers, and analysts whose principle goal, every single day, is to ensure the anchors you see on their television networks tell stories that are timely and accurate.
If your top concern is making sure that you and those close to you are simply getting the big picture news each day, I truly do believe our major news networks are the simplest, highest signal-to-noise ratio way to do this.... as long as you mute the volume. They're singlemindedly focused on coronavirus coverage and have, excuse my analogy here, put the actions of our federal, state, and local governments during this crisis under a microscope. I don't think it's the best or most efficient way to get information, but it's the least likely to send mixed signals so long as you keep it on mute and just check the ticker now and again. What's actually being said on screen rarely matters (and if often needless, airheaded and wishy-washy speculation), and if it does, you can turn the volume back on.
Late night news segments are also an option if you want to avoid the always-on insanity of cable news (and I can't blame you!), and if you're going to pick one, I recommend the PBS Newshour.
The second, and for the brave: Twitter
I, personally, do not watch these channels (I find the constant, often highly repetitious deluge of information unbearable). One of the best tools for me during this crisis has unsurprisingly been the world's unofficial breaking news platform, Twitter. Twitter is in many ways the opposite of these networks: information comes out incredibly rapidly, but often with little vetting. Twitter is a double-edged blade for another reason, too: for all the good information, there is endless bad or outright dangerous information being spread on this thought dumping ground. As such, I highly recommend you curate a list of your own both national and specific to your region. What should be in it?
- Reliable breaking national and international news feeds
- Local TV stations
- Regional newspapers
Avoid placing news personalities and commentators in your list if you want to retain your sanity. Right here, I have a list that can serve as a basic starting point. It contains four accounts: BNO News, BNO Newsroom, NBC Breaking News, and CNN Breaking News (sorry, Fox fans, they don't have an active breaking news account). If you're not familiar with BNO, they're an independent short-form news organization that's been around for about a decade, and they were basically born on Twitter. Multiple members of AP can vouch not just for the quality of their reporting, but the no-nonsense, rapid information they provide in breaking news situations. Their second account, BNO Newsroom, provides up-to-the-minute updates on large, multi-day news events that may pose too high a volume for the main account. I personally have not found the volume to be burdensome during the coronavirus crisis. If anything, BNO has helped me cut through the noise of the many obnoxious "hub" posts various sites keep repromoting with small updates hidden behind 8 paragraphs of old information (not helpful, guys).
The third, for the voracious reader: Newspapers
At a time when information can come at us at a concerning pace, newspapers may offer respite to the news-weary. While the state of most of America's national newspapers remains sorry at large, there is quality reporting being done at a number of places, even if I do sometimes question the way that reporting is being aggregated and displayed to readers (the New York Times in particular gets a shoutout, their live update coronavirus hub is a mangled mess of information).
Right now, the list of newspapers I can recommend is small. But if you have suggestions for papers you think have been doing an exemplary job covering this story, please drop them in the comments, and we can start sorting them regionally.
- National papers
- Regional papers
Newspapers can be slow to update stories, hide content in a way that is unhelpful, and sometimes comingle their news and opinion coverage in confusing ways. Still, they may offer stories that summarize and aggregate information in a way that is less frenetic or anxiety-inducing, especially given they typically have the benefit of hours of separation between the news breaking and the resulting story being published. As such, the alarmism tends to be a little less, well, alarmist, and I can understand how that could hold appeal for those of us not wanting to be overloaded with constant BREAKING NEWS alerts.
The fourth, for the listener: Radio or podcasts
Step two: Avoid unreliable information
Facebook has a time and a place. Serious national emergencies are neither the time nor the place for Facebook. The amount of conspiratorializing, unsupported panic, and outright fabrication that happens on this platform when people get scared is as terrifying as the thing those people say on it. Tell your relatives to avoid trading information with friends and family members over the Facebook timeline: it is far, far more likely to harm than help. There is very little community benefit from the kind of disorganized, chaotic "discussion" that happens on this platform during times like these, and they serve as host to potentially dangerous information.
The one exception here is local businesses. Many local businesses rely on Facebook as their entire online presence, and use the platform to update customers and partners about what's going on in dynamic situations. Whether it be closures, updated hours, capacity limits, or new rules about visiting an establishment, Facebook can be a great place to go before picking up the phone and calling.
Additionally, the other exception to the rule I'd make here is for, and you're going to laugh, NextDoor. Generally, the sentiment of comments is less aggressive, paranoid, and ridiculous on this community-only social network, and for a few reasons. First and foremost: only people in a given neighborhood (residence must be proven, generally via snail mail) can join, and only people in a larger superset of neighborhoods are allowed to comment within that superset. Second, the kind of nutjobs on Facebook mostly aren't aware NextDoor exists, and their comments generally get reported and taken down by community moderators (at least in my neighborhood). Also, you just see way nicer things on NextDoor in times like this. Here's an example from my neighborhood:
I was thinking about connecting with everyone around and checking if we can help the elderly in our communities to do grocery and supply runs locally. As I understand most elders are concerned about being affected by COVID-19 and may need help. If anyone needs any help, please reach out with a post and may be a couple of us youngsters can help with grocery or supply runs! Of course the runs would be safe. We shouldn’t be doing it together but individually with precautions.
In general, people on NextDoor are looking for or are interested in providing help to others. Be it business suggestions, selling things, or just a question about a local issue. This may not last during the current crisis, and NextDoor could turn into a fearmongering cesspool a la Facebook, but for now I remain cautiously optimistic. If you haven't checked it out, maybe now is the time.
Do not join large group chats
One of the worst things that can happen during a crisis in terms of getting reliable information is a communication echo chamber. Often, people form group chats with close friends and loved ones during such times with perfectly admirable goals: sharing information and keeping everyone safe. The problem is that, as these groups grow, it becomes increasingly difficult to police and vet the quality of the information being shared. India has a massive problem with fake news spreading via Whatsapp groups, and it's easy to see how the current situation could cause similar problems in America.
There is nothing wrong with starting a small group for your immediate family, one which you can be sure will only serve to disseminate reliable and established updates that are relevant to your group. You also, hopefully, have a bit more sway with the people you're related to by blood, and can convincingly debunk any false stories they share with you. In a large group chat setting, that becomes much more difficult, as the lone voice of reason can be pretty hard to hear when 15 other people are screaming about How The Government Manufactured The Virus And Gave It To Double Agent Chinese Bats. None of this is helpful right now, and the rational person inside you knows this.
While I understand the desire to help keep people from believing fake news, we all have enough to worry about on our own (like toilet paper) right now, and spending half your day telling a bunch of people who just want to panic and blame somebody for what's happening is an emotional and mental toll none of us needs to endure. Do yourself and everyone around you a favor and decline that iChat, Whatsapp, or Telegram group invite. It's just not worth it.
Avoid news aggregator hell
I absolutely have failed to control my Google News impulse during this pandemic, I admit. It's the worst; sitting there in bed for an hour every morning just scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. After a decade gathering and reporting the news, it's just my habit, I need to know what's happening. And for someone who does what I do, that's perhaps at least a good professional instinct. But for most of us, it's just not necessary. If we follow good sources of information and curate those sources well, there is simply no need to spend the other half of your work from home day reading the same headlines slightly reconfigured over and over and over.
Aggregators are also dangerous for another reason: misinformation absolutely still slips through the cracks, and intentionally deceptive headlines are a real thing. So, unless you truly, truly believe yourself to be an excellent judge of accuracy and outlet trustworthiness, you may be better off changing your news habits while the current situation unfolds. I know that "reducing" the scope of coverage available to you kind of feels like putting on blinders, but it may help you retain your sanity.
Step three: Just be nice (read: don't read the comments)
Comments sections on the internet right now are probably at their historical worst ever. It's just not a good place to be, and it's a place that's going to encourage vitriol, fear, panic, and xenophobia. If you can avoid the comments section, consider it a form of mental self-quarantine: your brain is going to thank you.
With that, back to your regularly scheduled Android Police programming.