Trust in COVID info sources varies by demographics, beliefs

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Christopher Sciacca / Performance Visual

People seek COVID-19 information from different sources based on sex, age, education level, political bent, and beliefs about the pandemic, according to a study published last week in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance.

Led by researchers at New York University (NYU), the study involved recruiting US adults on Facebook to complete an online survey in two rounds in March and April on their use of 11 different coronavirus information sources and their most trusted source of information.

The vast majority of the 11,242 participants who completed the survey (91.2%) said they turned to traditional news sources such as television, radio, podcasts, and newspapers. But the largest single source of COVID-19 information was government websites (87.6%), which were also the most trusted source (43.3%). Another large source was social media (73.6%), although participants said they trusted government information far more.

Men and those aged 40 and older reported lower levels of trust in government websites than younger participants. Those surveyed in April, as opposed to March, were significantly less likely to use and trust government websites, while trust in other websites, radio news or podcasts, and spouses or other partners more than doubled during that time. April participants also used, on average, 0.58 fewer sources than March respondents.

Non-white participants were more likely than whites to consult doctors and religious leaders for sources of information.

Type and number of sources, knowledge levels

The 7,811 of 11,242 respondents (69.5%) who reported consulting mainstream media sources said they most often used television network news outlets such as CNN (24.0%), Fox News (19.3%), and other local or national stations (35.2%).

Republicans were significantly more likely to rely on Fox News and less likely to consult all other mainstream media outlets. In contrast, participants with a bachelor's degree or higher said they relied more on CNN and other international news networks. Respondents 60 years and older said they relied more on Fox News and MSNBC than on international news sources.

On average, respondents used 6.1 sources of coronavirus information. Men and participants who were aged 40 and older, unemployed or retired, and Republican used fewer sources than those with children at home and a higher education level. Respondents with a bachelor's degree or higher were more likely than others to use all sources of information except for traditional media.

While many coronavirus-related beliefs were significantly predictive of information sources and degree of reliance on mainstream media, the link between source and COVID-19 knowledge was mixed.

Use of more information sources was linked to improved awareness that wearing face coverings helps impede spread of the virus, and participants who used government websites had significantly more COVID-19 awareness than others.

Most survey respondents were women (59.0%), white (92.7%), employed (59.5%), and living in suburbs (51.0%).

Influence of beliefs, political affiliation

Those who relied on CNN or MSNBC tended to agree that COVID-19 is deadlier than seasonal flu, the media has devoted the right amount of coverage to the pandemic, and the virus is a bigger issue than the government suggests, while they disagreed that warm weather reduces virus spread and that coronavirus is a smaller issue than media coverage suggests.

Those who consulted government websites were more likely than those who didn't to disagree that the coronavirus was released as a terroristic act, the media exaggerated the threat of COVID-19, and warm weather slows the spread of the virus, while people who watched Fox News tended to agree with those statements. The also tended to disagree that COVID-19 is deadlier than seasonal flu, the media coverage of the pandemic has been proportional to the problem, and the coronavirus is a bigger issue than the government has suggested.

The authors said that understanding the development of coronavirus information, the channels used for dissemination, and the populations targeted is important to be able to convince the public that lockdowns and other public health measures—which can cause substantial social disruptions—are needed to contain the virus. Targeted messages through trusted sources can also help counter misinformation spread over the Internet.

"COVID-19 information source was significantly determined by participant sociodemographic characteristics and was also associated with both knowledge and beliefs about the pandemic," the authors wrote. "Study findings can help inform COVID-19 health communication campaigns and highlight the impact of using a variety of different and trusted information sources."

Lead author Shahmir Ali, a doctoral student at NYU, said in a university press release that public health officials need to work to ensure that COVID-19 information reaches diverse populations.

"We have already started to see this, for instance, through initiatives by social media platforms to connect users with COVID-19 information while they are using these apps," Ali said. "Our research provides crucial evidence to push for these types of initiatives to get COVID-19 information out to the public in a manner that matches what sources they already use and trust."

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