Do People Trust the News About COVID-19?

New findings show that people don’t trust the White House any more than Twitter.

Posted Mar 27, 2020

Source: Pexels

On Tuesday, after President Trump’s comment suggesting that coronavirus restrictions might end by Easter, San Francisco Mayor London Breed quipped, “Why are we still listening to the President?” Her city has been among those most aggressively pushing social distancing rules to slow the spread of the virus.

Regardless of whether or not you approve of the president, or agree or disagree with the doubt expressed in Breed’s question, she inadvertently highlighted an important issue: Who are people listening to in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic? And do people trust what they’re hearing?

We’re all familiar with the most crucial precautions we should take against COVID-19, including washing our hands frequently with soap, keeping a wide “social distance” from others, and staying at home as much as possible. But few people know that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have also recommended that each of us identify where we can get reliable news and information about the disease. 

Solid, factual, unembellished information matters, particularly in times of crisis. Good decisions are often based on our ability to separate fact from emotion and real stories from “fake news.” In the case of coronavirus, having accurate information on how many people are affected, which states and localities have enacted lockdowns, and the latest advice from medical providers about how to keep ourselves safe could mean the difference between life and death.

So, what sources of news people trust is a critical issue.

This is just one of the topics I investigated in a recent national survey. (For other topics in the survey, see my previous Psychology Today post). In a nutshell, between March 6th and 11th, I conducted an online survey of 222 adults across 38 U.S. states. Participants discovered the study through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website, an online marketplace where individuals can post tasks that others can complete for a small payment. Researchers often use MTurk to recruit participants for surveys like this one.

The survey asked about six sources of news and information: Facebook, Twitter, cable news (TV or streamed), newspapers (hardcopy or online), the CDC website, and statements from the White House. It’s probably not very surprising that respondents perceived the CDC website to be among the most trusted sources of information, rating it around 6 on a 7-point trustworthiness scale. Sources perceived to be least trustworthy included Facebook and Twitter—again, no surprise, particularly given past controversies regarding “fake news” on a variety of social media platforms.

Notably, however, statements from the White House weren’t rated statistically any more trustworthy than Twitter—both came in between 3 and 4 on that 7-point scale.

That last finding might strike people as somewhat alarming, particularly during a time when we traditionally would be looking to government leaders for guidance. For better or worse, however, it seems London Breed isn’t alone in asking the question, “Why are we still listening to the president?”

We should be careful, however, not to assume that people’s responses on the survey are merely about politics. Perhaps President Trump’s frequent use of Twitter simply has created an equivalency in the minds of much of the public. Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t allow us to know exactly why respondents gave the ratings they did. Now isn’t a time for partisan fights about the reasons, anyhow. It’s a time to come together, agree on the facts, and take steps to solve the crisis.

Regardless of how you personally would answer Breed’s question, it’s crucial for all of us to identify the sources of news we trust most and pay attention to what they have to tell us.