News Behavior and COVID-19 Prevention

Where do people get information about the pandemic? Do they follow guidelines from health professionals? Knology researchers surveyed the US public to better understand their attitudes towards COVID-19 and infection prevention behaviors

by John VoiklisJena Barchas-LichtensteinElizabeth Attaway
Oct 21, 2020

In September 2020, Knology surveyed a representative sample of 1,003 Americans to understand news habits and individual attitudes towards COVID-19 prevention behaviors. The panel provider stratified the representative samples by several demographic characteristics, including age and ethnicity. Our panel was somewhat more educated, somewhat more likely to live in the suburbs, and somewhat more Democratic-leaning than the U.S. as a whole.

Most respondents reported accessing news as or more often than the same time last year, although some said their news habits had leveled off since April 2020. While most respondents said they try to avoid the news at least occasionally, they still generally received news about the pandemic frequently. More than half of them relied on journalism organizations as their primary source of COVID-19 news, with medical sources like the CDC and health departments as the next most common type of response.

Survey participants reported at least moderate compliance with all recommended behaviors. They were somewhat less likely to say they regularly clean surfaces within their homes; the majority reported that they regularly wear masks, wash their hands thoroughly, and avoid close contact with people outside their households. They also identified that wearing a mask, maintaining distance, and staying home frequently benefits both themselves and others, while recognizing that washing hands may benefit the individual more than society. They also generally believed that it is wrong to attend large gatherings, inside or out, and to go indoors without wearing a mask.

One cause for concern in these findings is the relatively high number of respondents who remain susceptible to conspiracy theories about the virus’s origin. The majority of respondents recognized that it is naturally occurring, but almost one-third of participants said it was developed either intentionally or unintentionally in a lab, and more than one-tenth said they were uncertain.

Let’s Put it to Work

Taken together, these data provide the landmarks--regulatory, moral, and personal--for mapping the paths people follow from their news habits to their health habits. Imagine two people who access the same news provider with equal frequency. Arguably, they start with the same information, but may end up making different decisions about how to respond to the coronavirus. Maybe one person’s prior beliefs conflicted with the new information and they chose to ignore the recommendation. Another person might feel duty-bound to protect their family and friends and/or provide for the well-being of their community. The only way to understand how news habits might lead to health habits would be to follow people as they navigate the common landmarks along their paths. That should be the next step in this research.

Understanding these paths will be helpful for training the next-generation of journalists. They can learn to report the news in ways that anticipate differences in how the public uses information to make decisions.

About this Study

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant #2027939. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Adapted from a photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

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