Living with uncertainty: Understanding COVID-19 through the media

Uncertainty, anxiety and fear abound in the world today. Amidst the COVID-19 turmoil, people of all ages and backgrounds turn to the media for answers and directions. But how can they determine the truth or usefulness of what they are reading, seeing and hearing? At The University of Tulsa, Hazel Rogers Associate Professor of Media Studies Ben Peters is an expert on how to seek the truth in the media storm.

Hazel Rogers Associate Professor of Media Studies Ben Peters
Hazel Rogers Associate Professor of Media Studies Ben Peters

For the first time this century, a deadly virus has kept millions of Americans confined to their homes, receiving their news from national outlets, local stations and even social media posts. “The trick with media in pandemics is that, since they are rare and often unlike one another in their details, no one knows exactly what makes a pandemic story credible,” explained Peters, who teaches courses on media ethics, media history and digital media. “As a result, the supply of credibility goes down at the same time that the demand for authoritative information goes up. The resulting gap means all media consumers will need to learn to sit with more uncertainty than usual.”

News shared on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms are not always as dependable as that printed in a high-quality newspaper, such as the Tulsa World and the New York Times. Peters urges people to not give in to the assumption that mainstream media is untrustworthy. A good deal of it is reliable. “Armchair experts are lame,” Peters said. “We can tell nonsense from commonsense by slowing down our judgment, checking our own motivated reasoning, reminding ourselves that the truth eventually will likely out, but most likely not today, and by beginning the slow process of sorting through claims, what we know, what we don’t know and who we believe.”

Peters offers another rule of thumb: “If you’re getting your news only on television or videos, stop (you may in fact be more dangerous than if you consumed no news because you think you’re informed, but you’re not); if you’re getting your news primarily from the radio, or if you’re getting your news primarily through social media and you do not actively follow multiple competing, politically different and legitimate sources, chances are you’re probably under-informed about most things. Instead, get your news by reading across multiple sources along the political spectrum, including international sites.” One approach Peters recommends is to follow the same story and footnotes across different sources. This is an excellent way to learn which sources to believe and share. He urges news readers to trust and verify: “In times of pandemics, it is better to be a modern person than a postmodern person.” Especially when so much is uncertain, it is wise to trust the expert institutions, like the CDC, that keep society working and informed.