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The WHO wants to fight the coronavirus ‘infodemic.’ Here’s how.

We surveyed people in six countries to find out who’s getting accurate information and from where.

- April 22, 2020

Officials who are trying to manage the coronavirus pandemic need to worry not just about responding medically; they need also ensure the public is accurately informed — fighting what the World Health Organization’s leader calls an “infodemic.” As Sylvie Briand, who leads WHO work in communicating about the virus, says, every epidemic brings with it a “tsunami of information and misinformation.”

Managing that tsunami is essential for public health. If people get accurate information and trust it, they are more likely to act on it for the greater good, despite possible hardship.

New research from our team at the University of Oxford suggests that news from professional journalists working at trusted independent media organizations makes a significant difference in this effort. People who rely on news organizations for information about the novel coronavirus simply know significantly more about the disease than those who do not.

Here’s how we did our research

We worked with the polling company YouGov to conduct an online survey in six countries between March 31 and April 7. We asked a nationally representative sample aged over 18 in Argentina, Germany, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States a set of questions about how they get news and information about covid-19 and how much they trust different sources. Then, to gauge their knowledge, we asked a set of factual questions about the virus. The survey was done as part of the “Misinformation, Science and Media” project run in collaboration between the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the Oxford Internet Institute, funded by the Oxford Martin School.

Of course, a single survey during a complex and evolving world emergency will not be the final word on the “infodemic.” But it can offer initial evidence of what actually helps people better understand and navigate the coronavirus. We measured how much people know about the coronavirus by asking them to respond true, false, or “don’t know” to five factual questions, using authoritative answers from the World Health Organization or other trustworthy institutions. With that, we could score every respondent scores on a scale of between 0 (no correct answers) and 5 (all correct answers). You can see the full report for the precise wording of the questions used.

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What helps people understand the coronavirus?

First, the sources that people rely on for news and information about the coronavirus matter. In the United States, 54 percent of our respondents said that they used news organizations as a source about the crisis in the past week. Those people knew more about the coronavirus than others. We see that pattern in other countries, too. In contrast, those in the United States who said they rely on information from the U.S. federal government — whose response Washington Post reporters characterized as “beset by denial and dysfunction” — do not know more about the crisis.

Second, finding information through widely used digital platforms such as search engines, social media, video sites, and messaging applications doesn’t seem to make people any less (or more) informed about the virus. In a few countries, those who rely on search engines for information about the coronavirus know a bit more, and in the United States specifically, people who say they rely on messaging applications such as Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, and, most commonly, WhatsApp know significantly less about the disease. But unlike relying on news organizations, we find no consistent pattern for relying on platforms.

Third, people’s understandings of the pandemic come from many sources, not just professional news and government information. As social scientists have known for generations, media habits and how media affect people are deeply shaped by social and political identities.

We see this very clearly in our survey. In the United States, 52 percent of our respondents overall say that news organizations’ reporting on the coronavirus is relatively trustworthy. But only 42 percent of those with lower levels of formal education say they trust the news, as do just 35 percent of those who report that they are on the political right. People with lower levels of education are also much less likely to say they rely on news organizations to learn about covid-19. Both groups — those with lower levels of education and people on the political right — give significantly fewer correct answers to the five factual questions we ask about the disease.

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Who’s best informed about the pandemic?

These three key findings hold up in the United States when we do more detailed statistical analysis to control for other factors such as age, gender, and reliance on other sources for information.

The patterns are broadly the same across all six countries covered. In most, those who rely on news know more about the coronavirus; reliance on various platforms for knowledge seems to have no consistent effect; and people with lower levels of formal education in all countries and people on the political right in most countries know significantly less than others.

Interestingly, only in Germany and the United Kingdom do people who rely on information from the national government also have a better understanding of coronavirus.

What’s the takeaway?

Our research and this new data thus suggest that news from trusted independent media organizations is key to ensuring people understand the coronavirus better.

It also suggests that no organization or entity can fight the infodemic on its own.

Most governments are clearly not capable of helping the broad public understand the crisis on their own, but by engaging with news organizations and platform companies, they can reach almost everybody. Similarly, platform companies need reliable information from health authorities, experts, and the news media. Meanwhile, news organizations in most countries may wish to think about how they can reach — and perhaps win the trust of — the large number of people who don’t trust them, especially among those on the political right and many with less formal education.

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Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (@rasmus_kleis) is the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and professor of political communication at the University of Oxford.

Richard Fletcher (@dragz) is a senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and leads the Institute’s research team.