JWU Media Comm Students Focus on Research to Keep COVID-19 Misinformation at Bay

Professor Christopher Westgate, Ph.D., has been working with students to address COVID-19 misinformation issues.

With the COVID-19 virus advancing rapidly globally, and the United States declaring a state of emergency, many schools, universities and businesses have closed in an effort to curb its spread. The vast majority of people are now staying home and working in isolation — and turning to social media and other media outlets for information. And for some, that’s where the trouble begins.

Professor Christopher Westgate, Ph.D., who teaches in the Media & Communication Studies program at JWU, has been working with students to address misinformation issues, a problem the World Health Organization (WHO) is referring to as infodemic. 

“[In class] we discuss this infodemic by pointing to the ways in which social media can spread misinformation and disinformation,” Westgate says. “Students are educated about assessing research based on several criteria, including accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency, and coverage. I encourage them to read beyond social media and visit well-respected news sites such as those of PBS and the BBC. They analyze different perspectives across such news sites and compare/contrast [them] against information that gets released through the CDC, WHO, the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease, and the National Institutes of Health.”

Engagement in the form of shares, likes and comments of false information is in the millions, whereas information from reliable sources is not being shared at the same rate.

He adds it’s important for students to conduct their research with these criteria in mind, discuss the content they find and acknowledge the limitations of each perspective. “For instance, some have critiqued PBS for being too left-leaning, while others are worried that the White House's official statements have been unduly politicized because we are in an election year. We discuss the possibilities of such scenarios and evaluate how to make sense of the reality of the situation,” he says.

Before JWU moved students and faculty to online instruction, Westgate says he would address these concerns through face-to-face discussions in large groups in each of his classes. “I suggest all of these websites as possible places to conduct research and then I ask students to dig more deeply into the library databases, comparing and contrasting the scientific research they find with how that research gets reported,” he adds. “This will continue through our online asynchronous conversations over the course of the next few weeks, especially in my Media Audiences class.”

Images of the COVID-19 coronavirus shared by the CDC.

When asked what he would say to our audience in terms of helping calm anxieties about the spread of the coronavirus, Westgate says it’s important to keep things in perspective. “I would say try to not get swept into the storm of doomsday that many media outlets are currently forecasting. It is important to know the facts and remember that most students who do contract the virus will make a full recovery. What is left out of the news frame is equally important: the positive stories of individuals who have contracted the virus and improved on their own. I encourage students to always think beyond what they see and focus on the positive takeaways while, of course, heeding the facts.”

Find the most updated information about what’s happening at all JWU campuses on the JWU Coronavirus website.