People who trust TV news and Facebook end up less informed about COVID-19

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Although many media outlets brand themselves as “news you can trust,” relying on them during the pandemic may actually feed you more misinformation. A new study finds people who trust television and social media for COVID-19 news actually know less about the virus. Researchers at Penn State add those who rely the most on Facebook score as the least knowledgeable about COVID.

The team surveyed nearly 6,000 Pennsylvanians between March 25-31, 2020, two weeks after the declaration of a global pandemic. Their findings reveal people who say their main source of information is either TV or social media answer fewer facts about the crisis correctly. Those who use Facebook as their main news source or even just as an additional source get the most wrong.

“The rise of social media has changed the way people around the world keep up with current events, with studies showing that up to 66% of Americans rely on social media for news,” says Dr. Robert P. Lennon in a media release. “This is worrying, as misinformation and misunderstanding about COVID-19 and how it spreads is likely to have fueled the pandemic, whose death toll now surpasses 2.5 million worldwide.”

Who get the facts straight most of the time?

With COVID rapidly spreading in early March, Lennon’s team devised a survey to test public knowledge about the emerging crisis. Following President Trump declaring a national emergency, researchers tested the public’s knowledge, perceptions, and preferred information sources for COVID news.

The survey included 15 statements about coronavirus, asking participants to mark them as true or false. Researchers also asked how confident each person was with their answers. These statements ranged from easy to hard, covering topics such as transmission, severity, treatment news.

As for who the public trusts for this news, 42.8 percent put their faith in government websites for accurate information. Over a quarter (27.2%) said they trust television the most, with health system communications (9.3%) following in third.

The results reveal a clear relationship between where the American people get their news and who knows what about COVID-19. Researchers find those who trust government health websites the most score as the most knowledgeable about the pandemic. Respondents who trust television were less likely to answer COVID-19 questions correctly. Those using Facebook to any degree were less likely to get any of the knowledge questions right.

Misinformation may be prolonging the pandemic

Study authors contend that where people get their news needs to be a factor when officials craft public health announcements. They add that information regarding stay-at-home and social distancing recommendations helps no one if the public doesn’t get the right news.

“Effective communication is a critical element of successfully managing a pandemic response, as for the disease spread to be contained, the public must comply with public health recommendations,” says Lennon, an associate professor of family and community medicine.

“The first step in compliance is an understanding of those recommendations, so it is vital that health communicators consider how the public get their information and monitor these venues to correct misinformation when it appears.”

The study appears in the journal Current Medical Research & Opinion.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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