This is the story that told of the people that spread the disease that was caused by the droplets from someone who ate the bat that got the virus that mutated… Where in this “nursery rhyme” chain do we point the finger of blame? We could single out the story-tellers who ring ongoing alarm bells, or the people-vectors who ignore the story-tellers…or even the virus itself for replicating? I don’t know about you, but as I mosey along in this new reality, I wonder if there’s ever a point where I’m to blame for my own dis-ease during this pandemic. So I decided to consult an expert for help in sorting through this coronavirus chaos, and reached out via Zoom to a friend who is an infectious disease doctor.
Dr. Chris Cirino has been a practicing medical doctor for over 20 years, with a specialty in infectious disease. He also serves as a public health official in Marion County, Oregon. I wanted to pick his brain — not about Covid-19 per se, but for guidance on how to digest the glut of information out there. While my own background in TV and Internet content helps me understand how the media can take us on a ride, I’m no expert in medicine, much less infectious diseases. We had a great discussion and here are my five key takeaways:
1. Learn to Spot Quality Information
While the infallible, all-knowing news source doesn’t exist (darn!) Dr. Cirino puts far more credence in news articles that point to more than a single study. He asserts, “When one study is being used as the principle basis for a determination, that’s a red flag to me that complete overview was not done.” Most times this means waiting to draw conclusions until further study. For example, the initial exciting story out of France offered promising news about the use of hydroxychloroquine in Covid-19 patients. Yet so far, subsequent studies have not found it to be effective (and possibly even harmful). When new discoveries about treatments come out, we might get our hopes up. But when a single study points to certain results, it’s simply a cue for further study. Per Dr. Chris, we shouldn’t base “a huge conclusion on something that is a scientific phenomenon, just on a study that has only maybe 20 or 50 people in it.” Bottom line: When possible groundbreaking news comes out, tuck it away. Be patient and wait for more studies.
Another tip is to rely on information with multiple scientists, or a group of researchers behind it. “When there’s a group of scientists together, there’s a lot more power in evaluating the studies. You’ve got the different insights from the researchers, and these are people who conduct research themselves so they can sometimes see through the fallacies of some of the studies,” says Dr. Cirino. He points to the CDC and WHO because they filter through data from many studies, and from a variety of researchers. Also, their robust websites allow the general public to go deeper if they wish.
Reporting by a single journalist might be harder to assess. What studies did they refer to? What is their background? In a perfect world, we’d be able to research the qualifications of every journalist and scientist behind a publication, but per Dr. Cirino, we can take some solace in knowing “the scientific background does require a rigor that is tested and is peer reviewed.” Bottom line: Look for sources with the checks and balances of multiple researchers behind it. Consider the qualifications of the author.
2. Choose From a Healthy Media Buffet
I’ve long seen the parallels between our food diet, which affects the overall well-being of our bodies, and our media diet, which informs the overall well-being of our mind. And just like we might avoid vegetables (or less-thrilling fact-based articles) we also often have to use willpower to avoid the unhealthy “newsfoods” we’re drawn to — which is not always easy when tantalizing clickbait might offer a stimulating emotional charge.
We are naturally biased creatures — whether that’s a researcher with perception bias that might influence a study, or our own perception bias prompting us to choose one news piece over another. We must own the fact that at a core level we create the milieu of thoughts swirling around in our heads. Even Dr. Cirino is in the habit of reminding himself to “get back to the facts” when he gets caught up in a media-spun story: “As a scientist, a physician, a public health doctor, I have to be very critical of what I’m reading, because that’s the very thing that can affect my viewpoint, my framework.”
Once we acknowledge our biases, we’re better prepared to navigate toward useful news based on objective observations. This is especially true for our negativity bias: a natural human response that pulls us toward negative news, which in turn can shift our mood and influence decision-making. It’s a holdover from early human survival days, but not so useful now. Using the “media as food” metaphor, this can play out like a bag of potato chips or cookies, where it’s really hard to eat only one. The next thing you know the whole bag is gone and you feel like crap. Bottom line: Challenge yourself to be a picky but healthy media “eater” with a focus on high quality information.
3. Inoculate Yourself Against “Extreme Story”
If you’ve gone down any rabbit holes of Covid-19 stories, chances are you’ve encountered a conspiracy theory or two. With so many unknowns about the virus, or about what our lives will be like in the coming months, people are trying to make sense where there is none. By their nature, our brains connect dots to grasp the big picture or to create a narrative. And when semi-plausible half-truths are out there, it’s easy to make assumptions and fashion a story gone awry.
Anyone with a smidgeon of technology skills can produce a meme or a video based on faulty assumptions. Such stories can be seductive when they present like “real news” with familiar conventions and slick graphics. Dr. Cirino put it perfectly: “It’s kind of like being charmed by a colorful, but poisonous snake.” While weaving theories together is a natural thought process, plenty of people will take advantage of desperate times to promote their agenda, often with no ill-intent whatsoever. Holding a certain political stance or supporting a particular treatment protocol might be all it takes to wield subtle influence in a news piece. Bottom line: Question your assumptions, starting with the headline — and question the biases of those both telling and spreading the story.
Sometimes the “extreme stories” are the ones we tell ourselves – for example, after hearing about the unlikely 38-year-old in the ICU. As Dr. Cirino illustrates: “We see those cases and we have a negativity bias, and the first thing we do is turn them onto ourselves, ‘What if this happened to me?’” He points out that the large prefrontal cortex of the human brain enables us to do a lot of hypothetical thinking, which can lead us to imagine unlikely (even if theoretically possible) outcomes. In simple science terms, Dr. Cirino explains how when we go to fear or worry, it sets off chemicals in our bodies, which literally shape our brain. Functional MRIs will show larger “worry” centers (or amygdalae) in chronic worriers. In short, he says, “the more we worry, the better worriers we become.”
At the risk of expanding my own amygdala, I ask Dr. Chris for guidance on an appropriate reaction when we hear of younger people dying of the coronavirus. I figure if anybody can offer clarity, it’s an infectious disease doctor. His calm reply: “I think when we’re seeing these cases of 38-year-olds dying, there’s likely an innate immunity defect [in that person] we just have yet to understand.” And as a public health officer, he also stresses the importance of balancing the fear with positive messaging: “This is a disease that’s going to pass over. It doesn’t cause death but in a small amount of people …so we have to look at what you can do to assist in protecting yourself and others, so it’s sort of an empowerment message rather than a disempowerment message [that creates fear].”
My takeaway from this is that we need to get good at discerning between caution (helpful, empowering) and fear (unhelpful, disempowering). When we start in on a news piece we should ask: How am I feeling in my body as I read this? Do I feel informed and self-empowered? Am I unnerved and starting to feel helpless? Remember, what you focus on expands—whether that’s fear or empowerment. Bottom line: You have the power to change the channel or close the browser, so use it to seek out stories that give you a healthy sense of empowerment.
4. Embrace the Unknown and Return to the Basics
When it comes to this virus, everyone — even the experts — are making their best guess based on a myriad of factors, which continue to unfold. But since our human nature craves knowing what to expect, I had to ask Dr. Chris to predict where we’d be in the coming months: “I foresee that within the next six months, the cases will decrease enough that with the occasional outbreaks we will be better able to sequester them.” He thinks between contact tracing, testing, and increased herd immunity we will manage to keep those at greatest risk from developing severe disease. He reminded me that “this is a novel infection and that we will develop an amazingly precise immune response. That is the nature of our adaptive immunity.”
So in this ever-changing pandemic story, filled with statistics, opinions and lots of guesses, do I foresee anything that’ll change my behavior much beyond what I’m already doing? Probably not. I trust that when there’s some grand new discovery that shifts everything, we will all hear about it. In the meantime, Dr. Cirino reiterates the basics: “Two things cause infection: viral particles and your exposure to them — and your innate immunity.” So until we know more about Covid-19, I take this as a reminder to be intentional about hand-washing, social distancing, mask-wearing when near others in public, and nurturing the immune system.
5. Own your Part in Shaping the Story
As for how the coronavirus story ends, Dr. Cirino feels certain there will “be an amazing amount of knowledge that comes from this as we continue to ask questions.” But while we wait for this knowledge to emerge, there is something else we can do besides follow recommended protocols. When Dr. Chris and I discussed the current media noise, he said something that struck me: “I think we have to be careful telling a story when we’re living the story — because you can fashion it a certain way. We know that history is told by the winners, right? So too is current history.”
Cov-Art by Yara Kanar, age 13
We are both the story and the story-tellers. We are shaping the Covid-19 story even as it unfolds — not only by our behaviors (hand-washing, distancing, etc.) but by the media stories we ingest and then share with others. This means we can also help write the ending of this story. If we want to minimize a dark, medieval finish to this pandemic, then one thing we can do is avoid reading and sharing the dark, scary stories. If we want to ensure a post-pandemic future with better health on this planet by making much-needed societal changes, we can help bring that about too. The ultimate bottom line: Take in and spread stories that tell of a hopeful, healthy future. They are out there, and you can create them. Be the change you wish to see in the world.
Learn more about Dr. Cirino and check out his great tips, including Covid-19 Resources at YourHealthForumbyDrCirino.org, where he also holds regular Cov-Art contests.
Per Becoming Better People’s goal of effecting change beyond words, check out the next post to learn about the awesome media literacy nonprofit I chose to support.