• Marilyn Salzman

COVID-19 Retrospective #1: Evolving news & information priorities

Updated: Oct 11

A year-over-year study (2020 to 2021) of COVID-19 news & information reveals evolving priorities and pandemic fatigue as the pandemic rages on

By: Marilyn Salzman, Bill Skeet, and Lori Eronimous with special thanks to Michael Salzman for data coding and to TryMyUI for sponsoring our task-based research.

Have you felt overwhelmed by COVID-19’s news and information ecosystem? Do you wonder about how people are finding information or responding to it? Have you worried about mandates or guidelines? Have you sensed growing pandemic fatigue or a swell in distrust as the pandemic rages on?

In this blog article, we’ll tackle these questions and highlight a few more for further investigation.

Highlights (and lowlights)

  • Informational needs and priorities have shifted away from statistics and prevention, safety & spread

  • Vaccines are the new #1 concern (but only for people who are pro-vaccination)

  • There is an emerging focus on variants

  • Care-abouts are often complex and multifaceted

  • Pandemic fatigue is palpable


Our findings are based on insights from a year-over-year study of how people in the U.S. have been interacting with and responding to the complex COVID-19 news and information ecosystem.

  • April 2020 Study. In April 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we surveyed a U.S. sample of 429 participants about the news and information they trusted, and we observed a subset of 30 people using the web to find answers to key coronavirus questions.

  • April 2021 Study. In April 2021, approximately 1 year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we repeated and expanded this research with a U.S. sample of 951 participants, and observed a subset of 42 people using the web to accomplish key tasks for getting tested and vaccinated.

This blog article focuses on news and information priorities. The year-over-year studies cover a broader set of topics, including:

  • How people have been using the web to find answers to key COVID-19 questions

  • What they trust for their COVID-19 news and information sources

  • Attitudes and behaviors regarding COVID-19

  • How demographics impact the above

  • How needs, trust, attitudes, and behaviors have changed during the pandemic (from 2020 to 2021)

See COVID-19 Retrospectives: A blog series about the complex ecosystem of news & information, trust & distrust, and experiences during the pandemic for more details about the 2020 and 2021 studies. For the full set of articles on this research, visit our COVID-19 Research blog.

Evolving priorities

To understand what topics matter most, we asked: “Briefly describe what information about COVID-19 is most important to you.” We allowed open-ended responses so participants were not constrained in their answers. Figure 1 illustrates how dramatically priorities have changed during the pandemic.

Figure 1. How informational priorities have shifted from 2020 to 2021

Early-pandemic, statistics reign

At the outset of the pandemic (spring of 2020), COVID-19 statistics (case numbers, death rates, etc.) were the #1 care-about, with nearly 4 out of 10 participants (38%) citing statistics as most important. People were also deeply interested in information concerning prevention, safety, and spread.

"Up-to-date stats on infection numbers and deaths, but also recoveries."
"How to protect you and the ones you love from it and the effects it's having on the world."

Two other common priorities were finding information about symptoms, testing, and treatments, as well as what was happening locally or "near me."

"Where are we on a cure or vaccine, how are treatment plans progressing, what are the plans to help people medically?"
"The number of cases in my state, the number of cases in my county, school information in regard to my university, stay at home orders and anything my state decides."

1-year later, vaccines are the #1 concern

In the spring of 2021, people continue to care about statistics, as well as prevention, safety & spread (27.8% and 22.5% respectively). However, their new top priority is vaccines. One-third (32.7%) of the respondents cite vaccines as the COVID-19 information most important to them. People want to know about its availability/distribution, effectiveness, side-effects/safety, and efficacy against new variants.

“Vaccine rollout, any advances or further information on vaccine side effects.”
“Vaccination information (i.e., availability as to when I can get vaccinated) and symptoms so I can stay aware of any potential exposure of sickness.”
“After vaccination can I still get COVID? Are the vaccinations dangerous and/or effective?”
“How long does the efficacy of the Moderna vaccine last? Can I be a carrier even if vaccinated?”
“Effectiveness of the vaccine toward variants.”
“Availability of vaccines, effectiveness, side effects.”
“Vaccine longevity.”
In contrast, very few people mentioned vaccines in 2020. Interestingly, the few who did seemed to be hoping for a "cure." In 2021, no one mentioned the hope for a cure. Comments from 2020:
“[I care most about] a cure or vaccine.”
“When will we have a vaccine/cure?”
“Where are we on a cure/vaccine, how are treatment plans progressing?”

That vaccine priority? (but only for people who are pro-vaccination)

We took a closer look at the 311 people who listed vaccine-related information as a top priority and found that the majority of comments (86%) are from people who are (or are planning to get) vaccinated (pro-vaccination). The remaining 14% of the vaccine-related priorities were equally split between people who are anti-vaccination (not planning to vaccinate) or unsure about their plans to vaccinate. In retrospect, this is not all that surprising. As the adage states, "out of sight, out of mind." It seems that people who are not vaccinating are not prioritizing vaccine-related information. See figure 2 below.

Figure 3 below shows the breakdown of respondents by vaccination status and priorities (vaccine vs. other). A sizable proportion (40.2%) of the pro-vaccination segment cite vaccines as important, 23.5% of the unsure respondents mention vaccines, and only 11.1% of the anti-vaccination respondents list vaccine-related information as important. Vaccines are notably off-the-radar for people not planning to vaccinate.

Figure 3: A breakdown of vaccine priorities by vaccination status

A closer look at comments from people who were either anti-vaccination, or unsure about it, suggests that safety, side effects, and FDA approval are of particular concern. At the time of the survey, no vaccine was officially approved by the FDA. Nevertheless, not a single pro-vaccination respondent cited FDA approval as important. This is consistent with the abundant media reports concerning vaccine hesitancy in the U.S.

“If the vaccine is safe or not.”
“FDA approval and side effects associated with vaccines.”
“Who should not take it, side effects, effectiveness, safety, FDA approval.”
“The number of people dying from the vaccination.”
“How many people are being affected by Covid shot (how many deaths from blood clots, etc.)?”
“What vaccine is safest to take?”

Emerging interest in COVID-19 variants

Not surprisingly, a new top priority for people in 2021 is information about variants, as well as a general concern about vaccine effectiveness with regard to these variants. Roughly 5% of the respondents cited variants as a priority. With the rapid spread of the Delta variant, we expect interest in COVID-19 variants has become even more pronounced in the months since this survey.

“Vaccine efficacy vis a vis emerging variants.”
“What are the new variants we need to look out for.”
“Current strains, transmissibility.”
“Info on vaccine-resistant variants.”
“New strains of the virus popping up.”

Topic care-abouts are complex and often multi-dimensional

Table 1 provides a closer look at the percentage of respondents citing different types of information. In 2020, we noted that what people say is most important about COVID-19 is often multi-dimensional. In 2021, that trend continues and often spans questions about statistics as they relate to prevention, vaccines, or variants.

"It’s important for me to know where the virus is spreading and the number of cases around me. It’s also important for me to know the current social distancing guidelines as well as if antibody tests come out." Respondent from 2020
“Prevention and suppression info, vaccine updates and eligibility, latest info on variants and spread.” Respondent from 2021
“The vaccination's long term effectiveness and side effects. What are the new variants we need to look out for.” Respondent from 2021
“How many hospitalizations? Where COVID originated? Is the mask necessary to prevent illness? After vaccination can I still get COVID? Are the vaccinations dangerous and/or effective?” Respondent from 2021
Table 1: Informational priorities in 2020 to 2021

Pandemic fatigue: Nothing, none, or make it done

A striking (and heartbreaking) theme for 2021 is pandemic fatigue. More than 1 in 10 of the respondents (11%) stated that nothing is important or that they just care about when it will be over so that things return to normal.

“None of it.”
“Absolutely none of it, at all.”
“It going away.”
“Nothing. It's a big joke.”
“When it will be gone.”
“I don’t care about covid.”
“Getting back to normal.”
“How soon life can return to normal.”
“When restrictions will be lifted.”

What Next?

In future articles, we’ll explore additional insights into COVID-19 news and information people want, how they navigate the news ecosystem, and what shapes their attitudes and behaviors regarding the pandemic, including:

  • Personal stories from a year of COVID-19

  • How people navigate the ecosystem and their experiences with it

  • The seismic shift in the sources people trust (e.g., medicine/science vs. news media vs. government)

  • A surge in distrust, as well as persistent and incendiary insularity

  • Politics, priorities, and trust

  • Vaccines, priorities, and trust

  • And, likely some topics we have yet to uncover

We’ll update the list of 2021 articles in series overview: COVID-19 Retrospectives: A blog series about experience, news & trust in a pandemic.

For the full set of articles on this research (2020 and 2021), visit our COVID-19 Research blog.

Series overview & methodology

This research is based on two year-over-year cross-sectional studies combining task-based data from TryMyUI with survey data from SurveyMonkey to understand where people get news and information about COVID-19, the sources they trust, and attitudes and behaviors concerning the pandemic.

April 2020 study

The April 2020 study took place from April 3 through April 16, 2020. This was soon after the start of the pandemic. It was a period during which COVID-19 dominated the news and many states had issued stringent restrictions. Study findings are based on responses from the 429 U.S. participants who completed our SurveyMonkey survey. This sample also included a subset of 30 people who also performed coronavirus-related tasks on the web via the remote usability testing tool TryMyUI.

April 2021 study

The April 2021 research took place between April 12 through April 17, 2021, approximately 1 year into the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of the 2021 study, the vaccine was widely available to people 18 and over and many states were loosening COVID-related restrictions. This study replicated and expanded on the 2020 study and included a larger U.S.-based SurveyMonkey sample of 951 participants. A subset of 42 of these people also participated in the task-based TryMyUI study, during which they were asked to navigate the web to find answers to key COVID-19 questions.

Detailed methodology & demographics

For more details about the methodology and participant demographics for 2020 and 2021 studies, see COVID-19 Retrospectives: A blog series about experience, news & trust in a pandemic.

Connect with the authors

You can connect with us via LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook: Marilyn Salzman, Bill Skeet, and Lori Eronimous. We'll be sure to announce new publications there or find these posts on our COVID-19 Research blog.

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