senior watching TV seen from behindShare on Pinterest
New research finds that TV news and Facebook were the top two sources of misinformation in the early days of the pandemic. Westend61/Getty Images
  • A study by Penn State researchers finds that people who got health information from TV news during the early days of COVID-19 were the most misinformed.
  • The second least knowledgeable group were those who got their information from Facebook.
  • 42.8% of people surveyed got COVID-19 information from government health sites.
  • Those who learned about COVID-19 from government sites were the most knowledgeable people surveyed.

Coronavirus data

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub for the most recent information on COVID-19.

Was this helpful?

According to Dr. Robert P. Lennon, “The rise of social media has changed the way people around the world keep up with current events, with studies showing that up to 66% of Americans rely on social media for news.”

Dr. Lennon, an author of a new paper from Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, makes the case that this misunderstanding is cause for alarm.

People who relied on TV news and social media were less knowledgeable about COVID-19 than other people during the early days of the pandemic.

Says Dr. Lennon:

”This is worrying, as misinformation and misunderstanding about COVID-19 and how it spreads are likely to have fueled the pandemic, whose death toll now surpasses 2.5 million worldwide.”

The study’s conclusions also have implications for future pandemics, which experts consider inevitable.

The study appears in the peer-reviewed journal Current Medical Research & Opinion.

In March 2020, the researchers developed a survey designed to capture respondents’ preferred news sources, as well as their knowledge of COVID-19.

In the last week of March, the researchers emailed the surveys to adults listed in the Pennsylvania health system’s marketing database, and 5,948 people completed the survey.

Coronavirus resources

For more advice on COVID-19 prevention and treatment, visit our coronavirus hub.

Was this helpful?

This represented 4.8% of the whole database but 74% of those who opened the survey. This suggests a strong bias towards those who have an interest in the subject.

Most of those who completed the survey were older, white, educated females, although the study notes that responses were similar regardless of gender.

Participants over age 50 reported that they were more likely to trust television news sources than internet news sources than individuals younger than 50.

The authors of the study note that they have limited ability to generalize the study’s conclusions due to the lack of diversity and urban representation in its sample.

For 42.8% of those completing surveys, the most trusted sources of information were governmental, including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the World Health Organization (WHO).

TV news was the most trusted source for 27.2% of participants, followed by 9.2% who trusted information from Pennsylvania’s health system most. Just 7.4% of those surveyed said they trusted news from other internet sources.

The survey included 15 statements regarding COVID-19’s transmission, severity, and treatment. The survey asked participants to identify each statement as true or false. For each statement, individuals also reported the degree to which they were sure of their answer. They used a 5-point scale from 1 for “Very confident” to 5 for “Not at all confident [just guessing].”

The individuals who scored highest on the survey were those who trusted governmental health sites. People who got their COVID-19 information from internet news sources came second.

The results did not clarify what the source was for the “correct” information. The researchers noted that they based some of their questions on CDC guidance, which provided an inherent bias toward government health sites.

The people who were most misinformed about COVID-19 were those who got their news from TV newscasters.

Coming in second-to-last for COVID-19 knowledge were people who said they got all or some of their health information from Facebook.

The researchers conducted the survey in late March 2020. Later research has now superseded some of the “correct” answers.

For example, participants designated one question about whether “healthy people should wear facemasks to help prevent the spread of Covid-19” as “false.” At the time, people had little knowledge about the potential for spread amongst asymptomatic individuals.

While it is encouraging that such a large percentage of the study’s sample turned to reliable governmental sources for COVID-19 information, there are still a great many people who are receiving misinformation from TV news.

Dr. Lennon hopes the study’s insights can inform a more successful public-health response when future pandemics arise, saying:

“Effective communication is a critical element of successfully managing a pandemic response; as for [containing] the disease spread, the public must comply with public health recommendations.”

“The first step in compliance,” says Dr. Lennon, “is an understanding of those recommendations, so it is vital that health communicators consider how the public gets their information and monitor these venues to correct misinformation when it appears.”

Future studies should aim to capture the dynamic nature of people’s understanding of scientific “truth” as studies reveal new information.

Some of the new information may contradict original statements from trusted information sources, including government websites.

For live updates on the latest developments regarding the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, click here.