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Believe it or not, baseball legend Hank Aaron died of natural causes. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said there is no evidence that the death of Hank Aaron was related to his COVID-19 vaccination.”

It’s important to note this because his passing prompted wild and inaccurate speculation that might deter others from protecting themselves against the coronavirus by getting one of the available vaccines. Sadly, his death is only the latest news event that sparked misinformation.

Last year, America confronted its legacy of racial injustice and endured the most contentious election in recent history — all during a global pandemic. And the insurgent attack on the U.S. Capitol to overturn a free and fair election only underscores how important it is to have sources of information that provide us with accurate and verifiable news, so that we’re not misled by falsehoods, hoaxes and conspiracy theories. If America is to move forward as a country, our democracy depends on our collective ability to sort fact from fiction. And that goal is particularly crucial for Black Americans.

After the senseless killings of George Floyd and Breonna Tayler, the Movement for Black Lives faced countless mischaracterizations of its goals and advocacy for the mere statement that Black lives do indeed matter. We saw false rumors spread quickly about Kobe Bryant and his fellow passengers’ deaths in a tragic helicopter accident in California. And in the run-up to the 2020 elections, Black people had to navigate disinformation about how we could vote, where we could vote and what policies the candidates were offering our community to help us live our best lives. All of these examples show how difficult it is to navigate the online information ecosystem that spits out falsehoods faster than facts, especially in vulnerable communities.

But the most destructive misinformation that is harming us involves the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the COVID Tracking Project, Black people are dying at 1.6 times the rate of white people. As of early January 2021, more than 55,000 of us have lost our lives to COVID-19, and we account for 16% of the total deaths (when a person’s race is known). This staggering loss of life can be attributed to many different factors, such as a lack of testing for the virus, conflicting guidance about how people should protect themselves, inequalities in access to healthcare, dense living conditions and poor communication with communities of color.

The latter is exacerbated by past experimentation on Black Americans that rightly made our people skeptical and distrustful of government “remedies” —  and the impact of that still haunts us today. Add in misinformation spread by social media personalities Diamond & Silk, social posts about Black people’s immunity to the coronavirus and 5G conspiracies, and you can see how and why the pandemic and false information are disproportionately causing more trauma for the Black community.

The first step toward reducing the harm is making sure we have solid information about the virus. We need to empower ourselves to know what steps we can take to reduce the racial disparities that exist from COVID-19 and learn how to find verifiable information about the vaccines so that we can be safe. And that starts with being news-literate.

News literacy is the ability to determine the credibility of news and other content, to identify different types of information, and to use the standards of authoritative, fact-based journalism to determine what to trust, share and act on. Being news-literate helps prepare you to go beyond liking or sharing someone’s text or social post and instead, evaluating the accuracy of it before you pass it along and become a spreader of misinformation. Believe it or not, you may be the most trusted voice in your family or community. As such, we all have a responsibility to not share information that can be dangerous to our loved ones and our neighbors.

As we begin to celebrate Black History Month, it’s crucial for us to know that we can protect ourselves by learning how to judge the credibility of information that comes our way. While systemic racism bears much of the blame for the disparity of COVID-related deaths in the Black community, we can and must take steps to prevent further devastation of our people. Part of that starts with becoming news-literate.

I urge you to take a few moments to follow these tips and to use our resources to guard against misleading, harmful and dangerous misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, protest movements and politics. Let’s take the power back from those who try to deceive us by empowering ourselves with news literacy skills that will help us become reliably informed at a moment when these skills are urgently needed. For Black Americans suffering disproportionately from COVID-19, misinformation is a matter of life and death.


Ebonee Rice is the Vice President of the Educator Network for the News Literacy Project.