NEW YORK (AP) – For a story that has dominated the news during the past four months, a survey out on Monday illustrated the difficulty that many Americans have in finding information they can believe about the coronavirus pandemic.
Three in 10 Americans said they trust United States (US) President Donald Trump and his administration to get the facts straight all or most of the time when talking about COVID-19, the Pew Research Center said.
“I can’t think of any precedent for that,” said Director of New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting programme Dan Fagin, a former reporter. “There’s a reason why that number is so low. Honestly, what disturbs even more is that there is 30 per cent of the public who think they can believe the president on this.”
The president, along with some other leaders, were criticised initially for not taking the threat seriously, for delivering misinformation about potential treatments and, even today, delivering mixed messages on the need for masks and social distancing.
Even though Trump was a polarising figure before the health crisis, he had a chance to get Americans to rally behind him by offering solid, consistent information, said David Ropeik, retired Harvard University professor and author of How Risky Is It, Anyway? Why our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.
He cited former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the wake of the September 11 attacks as an example of a leader people rallied behind in a time of crisis.
“Trust is an intuitive sense of who we think is on our side, and that is why risk communication is really crucial in a time like this,” Ropeik said. “That is why the federal government has blown this and many of the state governments haven’t.”
The Pew survey found dramatic differences in how the public assessed key sources of information on coronavirus, said Pew’s Director of Journalism Research Amy Mitchell.
A little more than half of those surveyed (53 per cent) trusted the accuracy of information they were getting from governors or state leaders, with 44 per cent believing the news media. Trust numbers were higher for local media sources, Pew said.
Nearly two of three Americans said they had confidence in the information they were getting from the Centers for Disease Control and other health organisations.
“What is encouraging is that people do have great faith in public health experts,” Fagin said. “That’s why Anthony Fauci’s role is so important and that it’s a great blessing that he’s been involved in all of this.”
Ropeik said social media has muddied the waters with misinformation. That’s illustrated by Pew’s finding that 71 per cent of Americans had heard the conspiracy theory that the virus outbreak had been intentionally planned, and that 36 per cent said that is probably or definitely true.
Among people who cite the president and his administration as their primary source of information about the coronavirus, 56 per cent of Pew’s respondents said they believed that theory, which is unsupported by evidence.
The survey also found evidence of a growing partisan divide in beliefs. For example, a majority of Republicans (54 per cent) said they believed most or all of information provided by Trump, while only nine per cent of Democrats do.
More Republicans increasingly believe the coronavirus is overblown, said Pew, which conducted an online survey between June 4-10 of 9,654 people in a panel of adults selected randomly.
While Ropeik is less confident, NYU’s Fagin said he believed Trump had the ability to turn things around if he sticks with facts and models important behaviour, such as wearing a mask in public and insisting on social distancing by his supporters.
“What opinion leaders do can make a big difference,” he said.