Poynter researcher offers tips for COVID-19 reporting and verifying  data



Caryn Baird

Like many of you, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past two years searching the internet and social media for COVID-19 experts for data and patient stories. After what felt like hours and hours of going down rabbit holes and getting nowhere, I thought, there must be more efficient ways to search for information.

That is why I highly recommend checking out this March 5 webinar sponsored by the Houston Chapter of the Society of Professional JournalistsCaryn Baird, a researcher for the Poynter Institute and PolitiFact, walks reporters through techniques to refine internet searches, organize website bookmarks, ferret out misinformation and verify the accuracy of information like photographs found during internet searches.

“It’s daunting how much is out there,” Baird said during the webinar. “So, practice [searches] beforehand. You don’t know what your next story might be, so it’s good to stay fresh …. You don’t want to be on deadline finding that one person who took that one film at that high school in Colorado.”

Here are some of Baird’s techniques that I found most useful:

  • How to find a COVID-19 expert’s email: Add an email finder to your browser. If you are reading a story and want to quickly find the professional email address of the author and experts quoted in the article, an email extension will help you find them quickly (i.e., you can use this for Google chrome, and this for Firefox)
  • Historical context for COVID-19 and previous infectious disease outbreaks: If you are looking for broadcast stories from the early pandemic, use the Wayback machineto see how the pandemic was reported in March 2020 or look at CNN’s early COVID-19 coverage. If you are searching for print coverage from 1878 to 2008, Google has archived nearly every newspaper article. These stories are available for free.

  • Do background on doctors before quoting them: Reach out to the Federation of State Medical Boards. “Before you quote a doctor, check their license please,” said Baird. “Not all osteopaths are quacks, but all quacks are osteopaths. Make sure there are no complaints against them.”
  • Database of COVID-19 conspiracy theories: Look here to view viral memes and to find out if a conspiracy theory has been debunked.
  • Refining your COVID-19 Google search: As we all know, Google is a powerful search engine, but you need to refine your search. Baird suggests using narrower search parameters like those outlined here. For example, to search a specific site like the CDC, type: site:cdc.gov, and then whatever you are looking for like “COVID boosters”. “You don’t have to swim in the deep sea of Google when you can swim in a single drip by refining your search,” Baird said.
  • Speed up your COVID-19 expert search: Search an organization or an academic institution’s website and specify what you are looking for, like a virologist, immunologist or a specialist in COVID-19 long-haul syndrome: for example, site:Stanford.edu “covid-19” long haul professor. “I put Stanford in because if you are past 5:00 p.m. on the East Coast and need an expert quickly, call the West Coast,” she said.
  • Use First Draft News’s dashboard to find COVID-19 links and tools: First Draft is a project to fight misinformation co-founded by Google, the Open Society and other social media organizations. They created this dashboard with COVID-19 links and ways to verify information. 
  • Organize your bookmarks: To organize all your searches, this Start.me add-on enables you to keep track and organize your web searches and create your personal dashboard.
  • County-by-county COVID-19 data: Baird likes to drill down into CDC data for COVID-19 information. If you’re looking for a hyper-local story on what is happening in your community, take a look at this site.
  • How to search what is on Americans’ minds and COVID-19: This isn’t in the webinar, but I asked Baird to recommend the best tools for finding out what is trending on the web regarding COVID-19 queries. She suggests going here and on Twitter.

And lastly, if you are in a bind and none of the options above work, Baird suggested calling librarians at the National Archives or your local community librarian.

“Remember, librarians tend to be bored, so when you are in trouble, call the librarian where you are digging for information,” she said. “The National Archives has librarians waiting at the phones hoping you call them with something interesting.”

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