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COVID-19 Retrospective #2: Trusted (distrusted) news & information in a pandemic

A year-over-year study (2020-2021) of COVID-19 news & information reveals a seismic shift in trust and a surge in distrust

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.




Who do you trust for COVID-19 news and information? As the pandemic persists, how have your sources changed? In this blog article, we take a look at how people’s trust in COVID-19’s news and information ecosystem has dramatically changed, particularly when it comes to information disseminated by the government and media. We’ll discuss:

  • The seismic shift in trust -- from media to medicine

  • The erosion of trust in the government

  • A surge in distrust

  • Persistent insularity


Background & refresher

Findings are based on insights from a year-over-year study (April 2020 and April 2021) of how people in the U.S. have been interacting with and responding to the complex COVID-19 news and information ecosystem.


In our previous article, COVID-19 Retrospective #1: Evolving news & information priorities, we discussed the following trends:

  • 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

In our series overview, COVID-19 Retrospectives: A blog series about the complex ecosystem of news & information, trust & distrust, and experiences during the pandemic we provide more details about the studies and methodology. For the full set of articles on this research (including 2020 articles), visit our COVID-19 Research blog.


Trusted sources

To understand sentiment toward the COVID-19 news and information ecosystem, we invited people to list the sources they trust: “Which sources do you trust to provide COVID-19 information? (up to 5 in order of trust).” We allowed open-ended responses so each participant could describe up to five sources, starting with their most trusted source, in their own terms.


Figure 1 is a word cloud illustration of the most trusted sources in 2020 vs. 2021. The larger the text, the more frequently the source was cited as most trusted.


Figure 1: Word cloud of the most trusted sources for 2020 and 2021

The word clouds showcase some notable changes in the sources people trust most:

  • The CDC has become even more dominant as the #1 trusted source.

  • A higher proportion of people trust Dr. Fauci (Director of NIH's NIAID) first.

  • More people are citing medical or scientific sources as what they trust most.

  • While in 2020, no one cited their personal doctor as the most trusted, a notable percentage trust "my doctor" in 2021.

  • 2020's top named media sources, namely CNN and Fox, are down in 2021.

  • More people are placing their primary trust in local or state institutions.

  • A sizable proportion of respondents states that they trust nothing, with a significant subset making a point to state what source they do NOT trust.

  • We see a slight increase in people who trust only their family, friends or self.

As in 2020, many respondents were quite specific about their trusted sources, identifying institutions and people by name. Figure 2 below compares the frequently named sources from 2020 and 2021. These include the CDC, the WHO, Fauci, specific governors, Trump or Biden, CNN, and Fox. The darker segments of the bars show the proportion or responses that were in the #1 (most trusted) slot; the lighter segments of the bars are inclusive of the full set of trusted resources (people could list up to 5).


Figure 2: Trusted organizations and individuals

Whether “most trusted” or “trusted,” the trends from 2020 to 2021 are the same. They reveal some striking shifts in the specific people and institutions people trust:

  • Trust in the CDC is up 33% from 2020. A whopping 41% of respondents cited the CDC as a trusted source in 2021, with 27.1% citing the CDC as their #1 most trusted source (a 44% increase from 2020).

  • Substantially fewer people cite the WHO (7.5%, down from 15.6%) as a trusted source, representing a 52% downward shift.

  • Trust in Dr. Fauci is up by 34% (from 6.5% to 8.7%).

  • In 2020, trust in specific government figures was low and it is even lower in 2021. For example, we see an 87% decrease in listings of state governors. You may recall that the governors (and particularly Governor Cuomo) were very proactive in the spring of 2020. We also see a 71% reduction in the mentions of the president (from 7.5% for Trump in 2020 to 2.1% for Biden in 2021).

  • Trust in both CNN and Fox has eroded as well. Citations of CNN are down by 43% (from 23.8% to 13.6%) and Fox by 40% (from 11.9% to 7.2%). That said, CNN continues to be the most trusted news media source with nearly 1 in 10 (8.2%) listing it first.


A seismic shift in trusted domains

We categorized 6,900 trusted sources (2,145 from 2020 and 4,755 from 2021) by information domain and see some dramatic changes from 2020 to 2021. Most notable, and consistent with our look at specific named sources, trust has shifted away from the news media and government to medicine and science. Also of note are 1) the decrease in citations of non-news sites, and 2) the increase in statements of distrust (None or NOT). See Figure 3.

Figure 3: Trusted sources categorized by information domain in 2020 vs. 2021

Figure 4 takes a slightly different look at the trust data. It illustrates trusted sources and domains by respondent ⁠— specifically, the percentage of the people we surveyed citing a trusted source from one of these domains.


Figure 4: The information domains people trusted in 2020 vs. 2021

Below is a summary of trust trends for 2021:

  • The majority of people place their trust in definitive domains (medicine/science, news media, and government), but we see a sizable erosion of trust in these areas from 2020 to 2021 (from 94.2% to 86.3%). Furthermore, a closer look within this ecosystem reveals that there are some winners and losers.

  • In 2021, medical & scientific sources are what people trust most. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents cite sources from the medical or scientific domain, up from 48.0% in 2020 (a 32% increase in trust). Even more pronounced is the 54% increase in medicine and science as the #1 most trusted source (up from 33.6% in 2020 to 51.7% in 2021).

  • News has taken a big hit when it comes to trust. In 2020, the news media was dominant and cited by approximately 3 out of 4 (73.4%) of the people in our survey. In 2021, this has dropped to roughly 1 in 2 (56.3%, a decrease of 24% from 2020). Similar to 2020, local news, CNN, and Fox were the most commonly cited news sources, but many people were not specific about the sources they listen to, simply citing “news” as a source.

  • Trust in the government is on the decline. In 2021, only 18.3% of the respondents cited the government (local/national leaders or institutions) as trusted, and very few (4.7%) cited it as their primary source for COVID-19 information. In 2020, a substantially higher proportion of respondents placed their trust in the government (28.4% and 11.7% as trusted and most trusted respectively).

  • Trust in online non-news sites has eroded. In 2021, fewer people (16.0% of the respondents) trust search, data/news aggregators, social media, or other non-news sites than in 2020 (25.6% of the respondents). Participant sentiment suggests this could be related to 1) the waning obsession with COVID-19 statistics and 2) the swell of general distrust.

  • Distrust is surging. Somewhat alarming is the increasing proportion of people stating that they trust nothing or NOT a specific source (e.g., Not Fox, Not CNN, Not CDC, etc.). Explicit statements of distrust are dramatically up from 4.9% in 2020 to 10.9% in 2021, representing a 123% surge in distrust. Assuming sentiment from our respondents is representative of sentiment from the US generally (see Methodology), this could mean more than 1 person out of 10 is very skeptical when it comes to COVID-19 information. We take a closer look at this in the next section.

  • Insularity persists. In 2021, we continue to see a sizable segment of respondents (12.5%, up slightly from 11.9% in 2020) citing family, friends, or themselves as a primary source of trust. Some appear to be sanity checking what they hear from other sources with their own experiences, “Local News. Internet news. Newspaper. Word of mouth. Family and Friends.”, while others seem to trust nothing but what they hear and see around them, “Family, Friends. Co-workers. No one else.” We take a closer look at this later in this article.


Distrust: the nones and the NOTs

As we discussed in our previous blog article, there is a palpable pandemic fatigue in people’s responses with many stating that no COVID-related news and information is important or that they just care about when it will be over so that things return to normal.


We see a similar trend when looking at trust. More than 1 in 10 (10.9%) of the respondents expressed distrust (up 123% from 2020), see the red bars in Figure 5. Here are the distrust themes that emerge from an analysis of participants’ open-ended responses.


First, many of 2021’s skeptical respondents have begun to distrust specific sources, and the media in particular:

“Not CDC. Not the WHO. Not the Media.”
“Not the WHO. Losing faith in the CDC.”
“Definitely not the government. Definitely not big pharmaceutical.”
“Not the news. Media is biased.”
“Anybody but the news. Not the news. No news source.”
“Not the mainstream media.”
“Not Fox. CNN I guess? Twitter?”
“Not Fox news.”
“No news at all. No internet.”

Many respondents went out of their way to say that they trust nothing at all:

“None, It’s all a bunch of BS.”
“None. All lie to some extent.”
“None, government is corrupt. Wacked.”
“None. All news is scripted.”
“None. NA. Nada. Don’t Care. Nothing.”
“None. Nada. Zip, Zilch. Zero.
“None. None. None. None. YouTube.”
“Unsure. Not sure. Unsure as well. Not sure. Not really sure.”
“Trust no one.”

Finally, a few respondents tried to explain their distrust:

“Very few sources out there that are accurate. They are all stumbling and the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”
“Government fear tactics. Trust no one. Media is biased.”
“Not news sources due to emotional tones and personal opinions filtered into delivering information.”
“None. It’s too political so I trust no one.”

Insularity: family, friends, myself

In 2020, we observed a segment of people who seemed overwhelmed by the news and information ecosystem. They turned inward to their own experience, and to the experiences of those in their immediate social circles -- their friends and families. We were surprised to see a continuing and deepening expression of insularity in 2021. 12.5% of the respondents explicitly stated that family, friends, and self were top trusted sources. While some appear to be using their personal experiences to sanity check other sources, others appear to be frustrated by the COVID-19 news ecosystem. And, quite a few trust only those around them (and maybe their doctor). Here is a sampling of what this segment had to say about trust:

“Me. I’ve had it. It’s no big deal.”
“Family, Friends. Co-workers. No one else.”
“[My] own research.” “My common sense. My own experiences. Not the news.”
“Myself.”
“Family. Friends. Co-workers.”
“My brain.”
“Facebook. Google. Relatives. Friends. Society.”
“Me.”
“Google. Word of Mouth.”
“Myself. Myself. Myself. Myself. Myself.”
“My mom.”
“Real life experience.”
“God.”
“Me, myself, I.”
“Myself. My parents. People with experience. Doctors. Nurses.”
“Word of mouth.”
“My doctor. My pastor.”
“Friends and family. Social media.”
“My own eyes. Medical professionals. Family. Friends.”
“Personal interactions.”


Summary

All in all, we see a shifting landscape of trust. And, distrust and insularity run deep.

In 2021, it appears that the news media is the biggest loser when it comes to trust, and that the government is not far behind. Ever-changing guidelines, contradictory information, and, for some, incongruity with personal experience appear at the root of this erosion of trust. And, while people appear to be leaning into medicine & science (the CDC, FDA, WHO), some are not specific about the sources they trust, and others appear to be placing their faith in specific medical personalities, or their own personal doctors (a new trend for 2021). We are taking a closer look at the medical/science trust landscape to see how it relates to vaccination plans, attitudes, and behaviors. So stay tuned for a deeper exploration of trust in our upcoming articles.


What next?

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

  • A deeper dive into the trust landscape

  • Politics, priorities, and trust

  • Vaccines, priorities, and trust

  • Personal stories from a year of COVID-19

  • How people navigate the ecosystem and their experiences with it

  • 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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