Amid the cacophony of COVID-19 voices, confidence in health experts, elected officials and media is in good shape, but there are reasons for concern.
Canadians have never had greater access to news and information than they do today. In addition to daily newspapers, television, radio and Internet news sites – many of which have dropped their paywalls for COVID-19 coverage – we also get news and information from government departments and agencies, public health organizations, corporations, think tanks, universities, hospitals, advocacy groups and more. Celebrities, social media influencers, conspiracy theorists and trolls, all moonlighting as COVID content producers, are crowding the same platforms, generating gossip, hype, misinformation and worse.
In the cacophony of voices shaping our understanding of COVID-19, which sources do Canadians trust the most? And where do Canada’s news organizations stand relative to other purveyors of pandemic news and information? What does the fragmentation of the mediascape mean for how we make sense of threats like COVID-19? Does it put into question public trust and confidence, which are both essential to successfully overcoming the pandemic?
Our research group at Carleton University is seeking answers to these questions, and we are cautiously optimistic about our findings, namely that Canadians say they trust the organizations that are best positioned and equipped to guide the country through the pandemic. We recently surveyed 2,000 Canadians, exploring their views on a range of questions relating to public trust and their use of news and social media during the pandemic. In partnership with Abacus Data, we probed how exposed the public is to misinformation and conspiracy theories; we asked for their views on vaccination and what they would do once a COVID-19 vaccine is available for public use; we explored the economic impacts of the pandemic on their lives, and their readiness for reopening the economy; and we examined their uses of news and other sources of health information, including the potential for sparking new subscriptions.
It’s clear that Canadians are following news of the pandemic very closely, (figure 1). A significant number (82 percent) say they are monitoring news “every day” (53 percent) or “most days” (29 percent), while only 5 percent say they are “rarely” or “never” following the news. By contrast, 65 percent report that prior to the pandemic they followed the news every day or most days. Perhaps not surprisingly, television reigns supreme, attracting by far the largest numbers of Canadian media users. Crises have a knack for mobilizing the attention of a worried nation.
Who are Canadians turning to for accurate and credible information?
We posed this question to our respondents and asked them to rank 12 common sources from across different sectors of Canadian society (figure 2). A score of 1.0 represents the highest possible measure of relative trust that any one source might receive, while a score of 12.0 is the lowest possible measure of trust. Across all 12 sources tested, the relative trust score ranged from 2.7 (most trusted) to 10.5 (least trusted).
Public health officials (2.7), physicians/nurses (2.8) and academics/scientists (3.5) received the highest scores on relative measures of trust. Elected officials received a respectable relative trust score of 5.1. Media organizations landed roughly in the middle of the pack with a trust measure of 7.3, scoring almost evenly with pharmaceutical companies (7.2), natural health providers (7.2), and family/friends (7.4). Employers (8.3), social media influencers (10.2) and celebrities (10.5) received the lowest relative measures of trust.
Of course, Canadians turn to these various sources for different reasons. We expect health officials and scientists to tell us whether it’s safe to go out in public, host friends for a barbecue or get a haircut; we want governments to pass effective infection control policies and put the resources in place to ensure they’re successful; and we expect journalists to sort through the torrent of new studies, claims, and policy announcements to establish truth from falsehoods, all the while shining a spotlight on those in positions of authority to be accountable for their decisions.
Some aspects of our results are encouraging given widespread concern about the declining influence of expertise in public life. Many scholars, professionals and policy-makers are worried that the relationship between citizens and experts is collapsing as the lines between fact and fiction, once obvious and clear, have become blurred. In his 2017 book The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols attributes the rise of anti-expert sentiment to the proliferation of media sources and new technologies. We are experiencing, he writes, the “Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse” of the distinctions between those with learned knowledge and expertise, and those who can’t stand to be told they’re wrong.
Despite this anxiety about the waning influence of expertise, our research shows that Canadians are yearning for guidance from health officials, doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, virologists, social scientists and other experts. They’re worried about their health, the pandemic’s impact on their lives, and they trust experts to get the crisis under control.
At the same time, however, there are reasons for concern. Will we continue to trust experts once the pandemic is fully under control? Are we seeing an upward inflection point in public trust in expertise, or is this just a temporary phenomenon under the exceptional circumstances of a public health emergency? Our research shows that Canadians rank celebrities and social media influencers very low on their list of trusted sources. Yet, we also know that almost one-quarter of them (24 percent) are going to social media regularly for news about the pandemic, and significant numbers of them (46 percent) have been hoodwinked into believing one or more common myths, conspiracies or inaccurate claims about the origins and treatment options for COVID-19.
Social media is clearly a Janus-faced tool: a source for aggregated news and information, a place to go hang out with friends and family members, a platform to share personal photos and other memories. But it’s also a dark and dangerous place. The algorithms operating under the hood of these platforms are responsible for putting bogus celebrity claims front and centre in our newsfeeds whether we want to read them or not. So, while Canadians know and say that they shouldn’t trust Woody Harrelson or Whiz Kalifa’s ridiculous statements about the link between the pandemic and 5G wireless technology, that information is still thrust into our daily news mix, often right next to investigative reports by health journalists about why COVID-19 circulates stubbornly in some communities and appears to be under control in others, even when those communities are just a few blocks apart (spoiler alert: it has everything to do with race, income and other social determinants of health).
In addition to being vulnerable to the influence and spread of misinformation, our research tells us that Canadians are also overconfident about their ability to sort fact from fiction. We want to trust the experts, but we can’t figure out who they are or what they’re saying. A majority (57 percent) told us that they can easily distinguish accurate from untruthful claims about COVID-19. So, while it’s encouraging that we express strong measures of trust in experts, we also can’t afford to become complacent about the very real threats that seek to undermine public trust and confidence in the institutions we need to protect us from harm.
Most provinces in Canada are now reopening their economies by lifting public health measures intended to stop the spread of the virus, with some moving more swiftly than others. Some provinces, such as BC and Alberta, have achieved good measures of control over community transmission of the disease. Others, notably Ontario and Quebec, which are now responsible for the vast majority of Canada’s COVID-19 cases and deaths, continue to struggle.
Our ability as a country to beat back the COVID-19 pandemic hinges on many factors. Among the most important are public trust and confidence. Canadians need to trust that their health experts, elected officials, and media organizations are putting the public interest and public health first. As we are seeing, trust and confidence in those institutions is generally in good shape. But our research also shows signs of weakness. Trust and confidence continue to be tested every day and should not be taken for granted, particularly because the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over.
Notes on methodology:
The public opinion survey referred to above is a project of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University, supported by Abacus Data. A second phase of the survey will be conducted in June, with a comprehensive report to follow.
The first phase of the survey was conducted with 2,000 Canadian residents from May 5 to 8, 2020. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is +/- 2.19 percent, 19 times out of 20.
The data were weighted according to census data to ensure that the sample matched Canada’s population according to age, gender, educational attainment and region. Totals may not add up to 100 due to rounding.
This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.