COVID-19 is changing how much news people consume. But it’s not changing whether they trust it.

COVID-19 is changing how much news people consume. But it's not changing whether they trust it.

By Jennifer Nelson

Columbia, Mo. (Sept. 16, 2020) — A team of Missouri School of Journalism students and recent graduates this summer wanted to know how people were reacting to the news they were seeing about COVID-19. So the group picked a representative town and asked.

The answers weren’t promising.

Although 87 percent of the 100 Marshall, Missouri, residents who took the survey consume COVID-19 news, almost half indicated that they mistrust the news they are seeing about the pandemic.

The survey was conducted as part of work done this summer by a team from the Missouri Information Corps. The primary purpose for the group was to report and write news stories about how COVID-19 was affecting various industries and issues in Missouri. The articles were made available to news outlets across the state at no charge. The Info Corps also conducted some basic research on how people were reacting in general to the news.

When selecting a Missouri community, the team considered demographics, presence of the COVID-19 outbreak, industry and other factors, says Madison Conte, the corps’ managing editor. The team chose Marshall because it was somewhat representative of Missouri communities in size and demographics, with a bit more diversity because of Marshall’s two meatpacking plants.

Marshall is home to close to 13,000 people. It saw a higher rate of COVID-19 cases earlier in the year because of outbreaks at the two plants.

The racial demographics:

  • Caucasian: about 72%
  • Hispanic: about 7%
  • African-American/Black: about 6.5%

When asked, “What makes a news source reliable?” Seven percent of those surveyed indicated that they trusted local outlets and 9% said they trusted national outlets. Another 13% said they trust a news source if it has a recognizable name.

Professor Kathy Kiely, co-founder of the Information Corps, says she was surprised to learn that Marshall residents had such a low trust in local news, as most recent surveys show that local news enjoys higher trust than national news among audiences.

“What we may be seeing is a trickle-down effect,” Kiely said. “All of the anti-press rhetoric coming from national and international leaders and even from some in the media themselves could be causing people to mistrust even local news outlets. That’s really dangerous at a time when they become important conduits of information on public health or, in places like California, where wildfires are threatening lives and public safety.”

About one-third of Marshall survey participants indicated that they consume news and information from TV news sources and another 30% receive their news on social media either through their Facebook newsfeed or Facebook groups. Although the community of Marshall does not have a TV station, residents can tune into Columbia or Kansas City TV news stations.

About 15% said they consume “standard newspapers,” while close to 16% say they read “online newspapers.”

Unfortunately, many of the folks who don’t trust news said it seemed the news was inconsistent across platforms and sources, according to the research. This could result from them comparing information seen on false or satirical sites such as The Onion with legitimate news sites like The Washington Post or Marshall Democrat-News. It could also be that since the COVID-19 news has been changing so quickly, news is not always updated everywhere, says Missouri School of Journalism graduate Taylor Guidry, the team’s market research specialist.

Seventy-two percent felt they could identify COVID-19 misinformation, while 55% said they consistently fact-check everything they consume. Forty-three percent said they only fact check when they consume information from a source they believe might be unreliable and 1% said they never fact-check.

One of the team’s goals for the project was to help rebuild trust between news consumers and media outlets.

“The pandemic has made it wildly apparent that people need access to good, accurate, relevant, local information,” says Madison Conte, managing editor for the Info Corps. “Our reporting made a difference in people’s lives this summer, but the case study identified information that could help other newsrooms continue to shape their coverage around the state.”

Missouri’s 114 counties are served by 229 Missouri Press Association member newspapers, including the Democrat-News on the front lines of having to deliver COVID-19 news to their audiences, said Mark Maassen, the association’s executive director.

After their research, the team came up with a list of recommendations on how to better deliver COVID-19 as a way to improve how people view local news. Although the team ran out of time to put the recommendations in place, it wanted to share the tips with other newsrooms.

Information Corps leaders hope to deploy another team to continue to learn more about the information ecosystems in small Missouri communities like Marshall when more funding is available. They want to understand what needs are going unmet and how best to deliver news to readers, says Professor Damon Kiesow, co-founder of the Info Corps and Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing at the School of Journalism.

Team recommendations

  • Consider what Marshall, Missouri, residents want when it comes to COVID-19 news and information. They wanted to know how to slow down the spread of the virus and how to keep their families safe. They also were curious to learn more about what the virus meant for the future, as well as what the latest local mandates were and what business establishments were currently open or closed.
  • Distribute news across all your platforms, including print, online and social media. According to the research, residents trusted information more when they saw the same information in multiple locations.
  • Again, post your news on social media. Social media was the second highest platform where people consume their news.
  • Keep checking with health officials to ensure you are distributing the most up-to-date information about the virus. Survey takers indicated some distrust about seeing conflicting information. Make sure you let people know when information changes.
  • Make sure news is relevant to the local community and get right to the point. People are getting tired of seeing COVID-19 news everywhere, but they do want to remain informed.

Updated: November 23, 2020

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