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COVID-19: Australian news and misinformation

COVID-19: Australian news and misinformation

During a global pandemic, citizens need accurate and up-to-date information to understand the crisis and know what to do to protect themselves and their community. Trustworthy news and information sources are vital. However, the intensity of coverage during the COVID-19 outbreak has led the WHO to declare an ‘infodemic’, in which people are being bombarded with both accurate information and misinformation about how to respond to the virus.

This report examines how Australians responded to a health crisis in the period shortly after social distancing measures were put in place by the government to stop the spread of coronavirus. We conducted a national online survey of 2,196 Australians aged 18 or above to ask questions about how they get information about COVID-19, how they understand and respond to the crisis, how concerned they are and what sources of information they find to be trustworthy.

The sample is drawn from a McNair YellowSquares panel, with respondents invited to complete the online survey based on nationally representative quotas for age, gender, education and region. The data was weighted to targets based on Australian Bureau of Statistics Census 2016 data.

Survey data from April 2020 reveals how Australians are accessing news and information about COVID-19, what sources they find to be credible and how well informed they are. We compare the data with the Digital News Report Australia, which is a longitudinal study that tracks news consumption trends over time. This gives us insights into how news consumption volume and patterns are changing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key findings

Most Australians are concerned about the COVID-19 outbreak. 60% say they are either very or extremely concerned about the coronavirus, 32% are somewhat concerned, and 8% are not very or not at all concerned

Concern is driving news consumption. Those who are concerned are consuming more news than before with 78% of those who are concerned saying their news consumption has increased during the pandemic.

Overall, Australians are accessing more news than usual.  During social isolation, many Australians are staying at home to flatten the curve of the spread of the disease. This has resulted in an increase in news and media consumption. More than two thirds (70%) of Australians say they are accessing news more than once a day since the COVID-19 outbreak. This is much higher than usual. The Digital News Report Australia 2019 shows only 56% accessed news more than once a day. Women and young people’s news consumption increased the most.

Australians have turned to TV for news during social isolation. Half of Australians (51%) are using TV as their main source of news about the coronavirus. This is a nine percent increase from last year when 42% said they relied on TV for news (Digital News Report Australia 2019). Print and radio have decreased and the use of online and social media sources have remained much the same.

News is the main source of information about COVID-19. Most people are getting their information about COVID-19 from the news media (61%) but alternative sources such as the Department of Health (32%) and social media (38%) are also popular.

Australians are tired of news about COVID-19 and are avoiding it. More than two thirds (71%) say they are avoiding news about the coronavirus (11% often, 30% sometimes, 30% occasionally). This is a big increase from those who said they avoid news generally (62%) in 2019. Women are more likely (75%) to avoid news about COVID-19 than men (67%). Younger generations avoid COVID-19 news more than older generations. The key reasons given for avoiding news about COVID-19 are related to news fatigue. Half of respondents (52%) say they feel tired of hearing about COVID-19 and 46% say they find the news coverage overwhelming. Women are more likely to avoid it because they find it upsetting and men are more likely to avoid it because they are overwhelmed by the volume of news.

News coverage is impacting on people’s wellbeing. While news about the coronavirus provides an important topic of conversation (53%) it is also making people feel more anxious (52%). Women are more likely to feel increased anxiety because of news (59%) than men (44%). Compared to older generations, Gen Y (61%) and Gen Z (56%) are more likely to say news about coronavirus makes them feel more anxious.

News and stockpiling. Those who have increased their news consumption are also more likely to say they have stocked-up on essentials (41%) compared to those whose news access has stayed the same (23%) or decreased (26%). Those who say their news consumption has increased during COVID-19 pandemic are more likely to feel that news is helping them deal with loneliness and isolation (27%) compared to those whose news consumption hasn’t changed (15%) or decreased (16%).

Government is doing a good job of informing the public, but the news and social media exaggerate. Australians trust scientists and health experts the most as sources of information about the coronavirus (85%), followed by the government (66%) and news organisations (52%), though trust in local news is higher (62%). People also think the federal government has done a good job of informing them about the pandemic and how they should respond. People are more inclined to think the news media (38%) and social media (36%) have exaggerated claims about the virus and its impacts, compared to the government (18%). Despite this, overall trust in the news media has risen during this time. In 2019, general trust in news was 44% according to the Digital News Report Australia 2019, compared to 53% during the pandemic.

Concern about misinformation is not high. Less than a quarter (23%) say they have encountered a great deal of or a lot of misinformation and 30% say they didn’t encounter much or at all. Around one third (36%) say they come across misinformation some of the time and 12% didn’t know.

Social media is the main source of misinformation. Two thirds (66%) of people said they encountered misinformation about COVID-19 on social media. The majority do nothing when they encounter misinformation.

Concern about COVID-19 drives verification. While 62% of the respondents say they engaged with at least one type of news verification behaviour, 38% said they do nothing when they encounter misinformation about the virus. About one quarter (27%) say they have stopped paying attention to information shared on social media by people they do not trust, 23% say they searched for different sources to check the accuracy of information, and 12% used a fact checking website. Those who are concerned about COVID-19 are more likely to engage in verification behaviours than those who are not concerned.

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Sora Park is Associate Dean of Research at the Faculty of Arts and Design and Associate Professor in Communication at the News Media Research Centre, University of Canberra. She is the Leader of Digital News Report: Australia 2020.

Caroline Fisher is Assistant Professor in Journalism at the News & Media Research Centre, University of Canberra and co-leader of the Digital News Report: Australia project.

Jee Young Lee is Digital News Report Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the News & Media Research Centre and Lecturer at the Faculty of Arts & Design, University of Canberra.

Kieran McGuinness is PhD Candidate at the News & Media Research Centre and Digital News Report Research Associate at the News & Media Research Centre, University of Canberra.


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This Report was supported by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation Strategic Funds, University of Canberra.