On Saturday afternoon, members of The Times Argus news staff started receiving reports that a local grocery store had rushed people out of the store because employees at the store had been exposed to COVID-19.
A mini-hysteria ensued on social media. While pragmatists acknowledged that the store closing for a “deep clean” was well within the protocols of even a presumptive positive, the assumption on social media was that the grocery store and its contents were contaminated.
The town had not closed down the store. The state had not closed down the store. The store’s management had closed down the store as a precaution, because that’s what you do: You follow protocol.
Yes, an employee who worked at the store (but was not at the store) had tested positive for COVID-19, just like a health care worker at Central Vermont Medical Center had earlier in the week. But no one was really disparaging the hospital for having an employee (as well as other positive cases, no doubt). But the grocery store was worth hitting the panic alarm.
The store got deep cleaned and was open the next morning, and just as busy as ever.
But not before one hateful, misguided onslaught of ignorance and manufactured drama.
Reporters (note: more than one) spoke to public safety officials in fire and local police departments. There was no cause for concern; there was an inconvenience in the name of public safety. We had to make a decision: do we wait for facts and report that the grocery store reopened after its deep clean, or do we play into the hysteria that would have driven up our online audience numbers and created undue fear.
We chose the former: We waited for the facts — a decision that had online trolls accusing us of protecting an advertiser, and putting the public in harm’s way.
We stand by our decision not to fall prey to hysteria. The thing that does distinguish us from social media is, we don’t assume; we check. We call people to find out what is happening, and that vetted information — not rumor, not innuendo; not “fake news” — is what distinguishes us. We want you to know facts. What you do with those facts to form your own opinions is on you, but we will not falsely damage the reputation of an essential business over speculation and half-truths.
Coincidentally, on the same day we were struggling with the decision about how to report that story, the journalists from The Times Argus, the Rutland Herald, and all media across the state received a notice from Adam Silverman, the public information office for the Department of Public Safety, which includes the Vermont State Police.
The release was unconventional. It basically stated: Don’t believe everything you read on social media.
“In times of crisis, separating fact from fiction is more important than ever. But doing so can also be more difficult,” Silverman’s release noted. “That’s why the Vermont Department of Public Safety strongly encourages residents to avoid spreading rumors, speculation and disinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Vermonters should turn to trusted sources including their municipal and state governments, established local and national news outlets, and fact-checking and myth-busting resources from federal authorities.”
In it, Michael Schirling, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety, added: “‘Trust but verify’ is the old cliché, but now we need to turn it around: ‘Verify, then trust,’” said. “Sharing unfounded rumors, even if you have the best of intentions, can have unintended consequences like spreading fear and stretching already burdened resources even more thin.”
Our newspapers are seeing firsthand how information is being twisted and propagated online.
Trust facts. Trust local journalism. Use common sense and trust instinct.
Schirling provided resources — beyond local media — to help separate the wheat from the chaff.
Here are his recommendations (which we are sharing willingly):
FEMA offers a comprehensive, regularly updated website to dispel disinformation that is circulating online. www.fema.gov/Coronavirus-Rumor-Control
The Journalist’s Toolbox: bit.ly/ToolboxLinks
“Be especially wary of unfounded posts on Facebook, links to unknown sources or text messages that purport to be from someone with special access to insider information. Remember, disinformation can be dangerous,” Schirling noted.
We concur. Put your trust where it needs to be, not where facts just catch fire.