Chandler Case, Christopher Eddy, Rahul Hemrajani, Christopher Howell, Daniel Lyons, Yu-Hsien Sung, and Elizabeth C. Connors:
The health and economic outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic are largely dependent on individual behavior—behavior that can potentially be shaped by the information environment. The pandemic thus highlights the importance of communication: how individuals interpret recommendations from experts matters, as the effectiveness of this communication can determine how many people are affected by this pandemic and to what extent. Our research thus examined how sources and issue frames could (or could not) matter in the adoption of information about COVID-19 within the United States.
In an online survey experiment with a convenience sample of almost 5,000 US respondents in May of 2020, we tested the potential effect of expert and non-expert sources as well as fact- versus experience-based messaging and whether the information suggested potential gains or losses. We found no evidence that either source cue or message framing influenced people’s responses to questions about the crisis. Instead, we found that ideology, type of media consumption, and age explained much of the survey response variation. In other words, people’s beliefs about how individuals and society should respond to the COVID pandemic were already quite crystallized by May of 2020, shaped largely by ideological cleavages within American society.
Knowing now how the crisis has played out politically—with elites and media outlets adopting positions regarding the crisis and thus creating a political dimension to the global pandemic—perhaps our null results are unsurprising. And considering the fear and uncertainty caused by crisis, it may also be unsurprising that political leanings and the media source with which people receive their news matters so much, as people may be even more encouraged to listen to the sources that they trust. For some, those sources may indeed be health experts, but for others those may be their preferred media outlet or political leaders.
Yet while our findings may be somewhat unsurprising given what we now know, their importance should not be underplayed. What our null findings suggest is that even only two months into the crisis, public health experts, campaigns, and messaging were at a grave disadvantage in helping to shape individuals’ behavior and thus curb the effects of pandemic, at least in the United States. And while an inability to communicate useful information to the public is always concerning, in this case it has particularly negative outcomes, leading to higher rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and mortality, as well as extended school shutdowns and economic hardships.
Unfortunately our findings left us pessimistic about the future of this crisis as well as future crises that the nation faces. Given the polarization, strength of ideological cleavages, and fracturing of the media in the United States, we are doubtful that health communication will be effective at overcoming media and elite cues during the COVID crisis, a crisis that faces new dilemmas in encouraging vaccinations at a speed that would guard us against the new mutations of the virus. In the current information environment at least, politicizing this health crisis may be unable to be undone.