Tip Sheet

Building Media Literacy Skills During a Pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic heightens nerves, disinformation—defined as information being spread with the intention to mislead–has found fertile ground. In the United States, text messages encouraged people to stock up on food and supplies in advance of a national quarantine. In Europe and China, a video circulated on WhatsApp and TikTok that appeared to show shoppers mobbing a Dutch supermarket. Both warnings were false, and yet both landed in countless inboxes and feeds.

While those messages may have been intended to cause panic, there’s also been earnest confusion (what we at PEN America define as misinformation, rather than disinformation). One rumor said a salt water rinse could stop the virus. Another Facebook post claimed scientists had already found a vaccine. People may have shared them out of benevolence or a desire for hopeful news, but both turned out to be inaccurate.

Whether out of malice or genuine alarm, false stories are continuing to circulate. Here are a few steps you can take to evaluate news stories that are blowing up your feed or finding their way into your DMs.


1. DistinguIsh between news and opinion.

Some stories look like news but are actually opinion pieces. Is it news? Is it an opinion piece? Before hitting share or forward, consider the type of content first.

2. Check the credibility of the source.

“Daily Buzz Live” may sound like a legit news site, but there are countless examples of bad actors creating fake news outlets that sound real. Check to see if the source of a story is credible before passing it along to others.

3. For health information, go to CDC.gov or WHO.int

If you’re looking to find factual information about public health, check first with trusted institutions, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization.

4. Question your reactions to things you see online.

Disinformation outlets thrive on engagements–likes and shares–on social media platforms. They’re writing headlines designed to encourage you to disseminate their posts, even if they’re false or misleading. Before taking the bait, question the credibility of everything you see, especially if you get the sense it might spark a sense of alarm in others. That might be the whole point.

5. Fact-check what you’re reading.

Not sure how true a story is? Run it through Google or another search engine alongside the terms “true,” “false,” or “hoax.” Fact-checking websites like Snopes.com and those from trusted news outlets will often surface. You can also check out Annenberg’s FactCheck.org or Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab for more resources.

6. Reverse image search.

Go pro. If you see an image, try a reverse image search on Google. That photo of panicked grocery shoppers could be real. Or just a scene from a zombie movie.


We want to help individuals combat the spread of false information during this troubling public health crisis. PEN America is offering free webinar-based media literacy trainings, which draw on our existing media literacy curriculum and include contextualized examples in light of COVID-19. Interested in learning more or scheduling a webinar? Email Hannah Waltz, Media Literacy Training Coordinator, at medialiteracy@pen.org. Follow us on social media @PENAmerica to stay updated and sign up for our daily alerts on free expression.