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  • Marilyn Salzman

COVID-19 Retrospectives: A blog series about experiences, news, & trust in a pandemic

Updated: Oct 5

This blog series describes lessons from a year-over-year (2020 & 2021) cross-sectional study of the COVID-19 news & information people seek, how they look for answers, and what shapes their attitudes and behaviors regarding the pandemic.

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





Series overview

Have you felt intimidated or frustrated 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? Have you wondered what sources people trust and why?


These are just a few of the topics we’ve encountered in our research during the COVID-19 pandemic.


In this blog series, we report on insights from a year-over-year study combining survey and behavioral data to understand how people in the U.S. have been interacting with and responding to the complex COVID-19 news and information ecosystem. Our research objectives were to:

  • Observe people using the web to find answers to key COVID-19 questions

  • Identify their trusted news and information sources

  • Understand COVID-19-related attitudes and behaviors

  • Explore how demographics impact the above

  • Understand how needs, trust, attitudes, and behaviors have changed during the pandemic


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.


Together, these studies provide 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.


In these studies, we invited participants to share with us:

  • The impact of the pandemic on personal, family, and work lives

  • The information about COVID-19 they view as most important

  • The sources they trust to provide COVID-19 information

  • Their COVID-19 news consumption practices (e.g., time, frequency of use)

  • Their use of and experiences with the ecosystem (e.g., finding information, ease of use, confidence, improvements)

  • Their emotions and experiences (worry, exposure) and practices (testing, vaccination, guidelines/mandates, etc.) with the pandemic

  • Demographic backgrounds (gender, age, income, state, employment status, political affiliation)

Here are just a few of the topics we will discuss in this blog series:

  • Personal stories from a year of COVID-19

  • Evolving information priorities and a palpable pandemic fatigue

  • 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

For published blogs on this research, visit our COVID-19 Research blog.

Methodology

This research is based on two year-over-year cross-sectional studies combining survey and task-based data 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

In April 2020 (April 3 through April 16, 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. At that time, many states had issued stringent restrictions and COVID-19 dominated the news.


As shown in Figure 1, we had fairly good representation from each of the four census regions in the US, and coverage from 46 out of 50 states. Unrepresented are Delaware, Maine, South Dakota, and Vermont.


Figure 1: Geographic distribution of participants for study 1 in 2020

Figure 2 shows the participant breakdown for key segments. Most participants were between the ages of 18-60 (88%) and the rest were over 60. The gender breakdown was 57% female and 43% male. Political affiliation was 38% Democrat, 23% Republican, 25% Independent, and 14% Unregistered.


Figure 2: Participants demographics for study 1 in 2020

April 2021 Study

In April 2021 (April 12 through April 17, 2021), approximately 1 year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we repeated and expanded the 2020 survey with a US sample of 951 participants, and we observed a subset of 42 people using the web to accomplish key tasks. 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. The U.S. was making steady progress toward its vaccination goals (with 24.7% of the population fully vaccinated and 38.7% partially vaccinated, see vaccination statistics from Our World in Data, Figure 3). Nevertheless, progress was slow and vaccine hesitancy was in the news; unfortunately, this circumstance has persisted in the months since the study.



Figure 3. Snapshot of the vaccination status for the U.S. Source: Our World in Data

As shown in Figure 4, we had fairly good representation from each of the four census regions in the US, and coverage from 48 out of 50 states, and 2 U.S. Territories. Unrepresented states were Vermont and Wyoming.


Figure 4: Geographic distribution of participants for study 2 in 2021

Figure 5 shows the participant breakdown for key segments in 2021. Most participants were between the ages of 18-60 (84%) and the rest were over 60. The gender breakdown was 58% female and 42% male. Political affiliation was 35% Democrat, 25% Republican, 24% Independent, and 16% Unregistered.


Figure 5: Participant demographics for study 2 in 2021

Survey methodology

The surveys were U.S.-based and administered via SurveyMonkey. The majority of participants were recruited via a SurveyMonkey panel; a smaller subset of participants came from a U.S.-based TryMyUI panel who also participated in an observational study, described in more detail below. The survey panel sample met the following criteria: United States (USA) - SurveyMonkey, All Genders (Census), All Ages (Basic Census), All Incomes.


The survey invited participants to share with us:

  • The information about COVID-19 they view as most important

  • The sources they trust to provide COVID-19 information

  • Their COVID-19 news consumption practices (e.g., time, frequency of use)

  • Their experience with the ecosystem (e.g., ease of use, confidence, improvements)

  • Their experiences (worry, exposure) and practices (testing, vaccination, guidelines/mandates, etc.) with the pandemic

  • Demographic backgrounds (gender, age, income, state, employment status, political affiliation)

Observational research methodology

Participants in the observational studies were recruited via a US-based TryMyUI panel.* The TryMyUI panel sample met the following criteria: United States (USA), all genders, all ages, all incomes. Roughly half of the sessions were conducted on the desktop and half on mobile devices. TryMyUI participants completed a series of COVID-19 related tasks and then completed the survey described above.


* TryMyUI generously donated the test credits used to conduct these automated test sessions for this research effort. We are grateful for their support.


To the extent possible, TryMyUI tasks were replicated from 2020 to 2021 and included:

  • A tour of their top (1 to 3) online news sources

  • Find worldwide, U.S., state, and local statistics (cases and deaths)

  • Find worldwide, U.S., state, and local statistics (vaccination rates)**

  • Local and CDC guidelines for staying safe (and which, if any, were they following)

  • Determine whether any medicines were currently approved to treat COVID-19

  • Determine whether any vaccines were currently approved to prevent COVID-19**

  • How/where to get tested

  • How/where to get vaccinated**

** Tasks were added in 2021.


In addition to the above, we also invited TryMyUI participants to reflect on how the COVID-19 pandemic affected them (family, work, personally) from 2020 to 2021. We watched the automated test videos and analyzed the transcripts from the sessions to gather insights and verbatims for this blog series. For verbatims, we’ve removed extraneous words (um, like, you know, etc.)

Blog series

This blog... COVID-19 Retrospectives: A blog series about experience, news & trust in a pandemic This blog series describes lessons from a year-over-year (2020 & 2021) cross-sectional study of the COVID-19 news & information people seek, how they look for answers, and what shapes their attitudes and behaviors regarding the pandemic.


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

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


Coming soon… COVID-19 Retrospective #2: Trusted (distrusted) news and information in a pandemic

A year-over-year study (2020-2021) of COVID-19 news & information reveals a seismic shift in trust, a surge in distrust, and insidious insularity, all likely affecting attitudes and behaviors


Coming soon… COVID-19 Retrospective #3: Pandemic effects on daily life

A year-over-year study (2020/2021) of how people navigate our complex COVID-19 news & information ecosystem yields personal stories of struggle, resilience, and hope


More to come as insights emerge...

Stay tuned

We will update this overview with links to the blogs in this series above.


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

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