Four little words — “do your own research” — are hurting the US pandemic response, CNN’s chief media correspondent Brian Stelter said on “Reliable Sources” Sunday. And it is having real consequences as personalities from Nicki Minaj to Sean Hannity continue to promote the idea.
Minaj helped raise doubts about Covid-19 vaccines on Twitter last week, claiming she would only get the shots once she’d “done enough research.” It may seem like a reasonable, even positive, attitude, and it is a favored talking point echoed by many in the right-wing media.
The problem is that most people simply don’t know how to do their own research, especially when it comes to understanding the complexities of medical science.
The concept has lately become associated with Covid-19 and QAnon, but the phrase “do your own research” dates back to the 1890s when it was associated with skepticism surrounding the smallpox vaccine, Renee DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said on “Reliable Sources.” The notion of doing your own research is not a bad idea in itself, DiResta said, as it’s important to maintain a healthy level of skepticism about information being fed to you. But in today’s media environment fueled by clicks and engagement, it’s all too easy to come across misleading data that confirms biases.
“Nobody’s going to the library and looking up authoritative sources to do their own research,” Yael Eisenstat, a Future of Democracy fellow at the Berggruen Institute, said.
And although DiResta believes that Minaj didn’t have ill intent, there are others who do, and they are pushing people away from credible sources for their own gain.
Eisenstat said that to help combat this phenomenon, the media needs to be more transparent in its reporting, especially when it comes to Covid.
That’s because many of the subtle differences between understanding scientific research that is still theoretical versus that which has been tested and widely agreed upon are not well communicated to the public. As new information and new research comes out, the media needs to take that extra step to explain the changing landscape.
“Science is a consensus building process,” DiResta said. “Not something where we know the facts immediately, the moment that someone wants to be Googling for them.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed the quote about researching authoritative sources. That statement was made by Yael Eisenstat. The statement regarding consensus building in science was made by Renee DiResta.