Study highlights role of mainstream media in public health communication during pandemic

A study by Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) found that as the type of misinformation about COVID-19 rectified by Singapore’s mainstream media evolved during the pandemic, the role played by media in debunking these myths has become increasingly important. to citizens in the country’s struggle to manage the epidemic.

Out of 2,000 press articles on COVID-19 published between January 1 and April 30, 2020, the NTU team analyzed 164 press articles.

The team observed that news reports correcting scientific and health misinformation related to COVID-19 were dominant at the start of the epidemic due to uncertainty surrounding the nature of the coronavirus, but then declined over the first four months of the outbreak. the pandemic.

Meanwhile, false information about government policies and measures implemented during the outbreak has been increasingly reported and subsequently corrected, communication researchers at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information have found. (NTU WKWSCI) from NTU.

The type of disinformation that was corrected in the mainstream media also evolved over the four months, from fabricated disinformation – defined as fabricated and completely false allegations – to reconfigured disinformation, defined as a mixture of information. authentic and manufactured.

An example of fabricated content corrected by mainstream media includes false allegations that an MRT station was shut down for disinfection due to COVID-19 when it was operational. An example of reconfigured misinformation rectified by mainstream media includes a WhatsApp message about a food delivery boy fined $ 300 for wearing a cloth mask as the runner actually approached the police officer to get some food. help.

The study results highlight how public health crises like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic can be the perfect breeding ground for disinformation, as well as the potential of mainstream media to play an important role in debunking myths in part of the country’s broader pandemic efforts.

At the start of the pandemic, we were seeing clearly bogus disinformation based on clear visual and textual clues, but as the pandemic evolved with later phases and infodemic waves, the styles and presentation of disinformation became more sophisticated and more sophisticated. difficult to discern for the lay public. . “

“This is where the mainstream news media, with their social importance, broad reach and role as a credible source of information for the public in uncertain times, can play a crucial role in timely dissemination. wanted to correct misinformation and prevent people from being cheated. and act on potentially damaging disinformation. It is important to combat the spread of disinformation, which can undermine key public health communication efforts and increase pressure on public health systems.

Professor May Oo Lwin, President of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information and Study, principal author

The study was published in the scientific journal Health Communication in June.

The evolution of disinformation

From more than 2,000 news articles on COVID-19 identified from a database through keywords related to coronavirus and disinformation, the NTU team selected 164 unique articles specific to Singapore for analysis based on criteria such as articles with keywords mentioned in the title and lead.

In those 164 articles, the team found 100 unique misinformation claims that were corrected 305 times. Of those 100 unique allegations, 59% of disinformation allegations reported by mainstream news media were based on fabricated information, while the remaining 41% were reconfigured disinformation.

To study how mainstream newspaper coverage and the correction of misinformation about COVID-19 varied over the timeline of the pandemic in Singapore, the researchers divided their study into different stages:

  • pre-epidemic stage (January 1 to 22);
  • initial stage of the epidemic, between the first case of COVID-19 and just before the condition level of the Outbreak Response System (Dorscon) turns orange (January 23 to February 6);
  • first wave of the epidemic (from February 7 to April 4); and
  • second wave of the epidemic (April 5 to April 30).

In the pre-epidemic stage, fabricated misinformation accounted for 87% of corrections published in mainstream media. However, by the second wave of the epidemic, the proportion of fabricated and corrected false information published in the mainstream media had dropped to 48%.

More than half (55%) of the misinformation that was corrected in the pre-outbreak stage was related to science and health, but that figure gradually fell to just 8% in the second wave of the outbreak. Meanwhile, the proportion of disinformation related to government policy and measures that was corrected rose from 11% at the start to 42% in the second wave.

Researchers also found that disinformation about government policies and actions (68%), as well as science and health (66%) found on social media was more likely to be fabricated. Misinformation related to scams was more likely to be reconfigured, meaning a mix of genuine and fabricated information (88%).

Associate Professor Edson Tandoc Jr. of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information and co-author of the article said: “As the media check the facts, the fact checks also reflect the trend of disinformation that is swirling around. We see that the types of disinformation that is spreading are affected by the actual situation, and to some extent that is what makes it viral, as it seems to be timely and relevant to what is going on.

“In the early stages of the pandemic, most of the misinformation focused on what is happening outside Singapore as well as the origin and remedies for COVID-19; when it hit Singapore and measures were put in place, messages of misinformation passed on to social distancing ambassadors fining offenders or drivers fined for wearing cloth masks. “

Singapore’s media confidence has improved amid pandemic

The importance of the media in tackling disinformation during a health crisis was reiterated in a separate survey of more than 2,000 Singaporeans commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) of the University of Oxford, which revealed confidence in the media had risen amid lingering concerns. on disinformation during the pandemic.

The survey, carried out in collaboration with researchers at NTU WKWSCI’s Center for Information Integrity and the Internet (IN-cube) was part of the recently released Reuters Institute digital news report 2021, and found that 50% have said they could trust most of the news content they consume, up from 42% in the same period last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Singapore.

This increased trust in the news exists alongside a lingering concern about fake news online. Almost two-thirds of respondents (64.8%) remain concerned about fake news online, a marginal decrease from last year (65.8%).

Assoc Proc Tandoc, who is also director of NTU’s IN-cube, said: “These results in Singapore, which revealed that interest in news, even from mainstream media, has increased during the COVID-pandemic. 19, are consistent with those in many countries around the world. The increased interest in news during the pandemic may explain the increased level of trust in the media as the public relied on information to monitor the epidemic. “


Nanyang Technological University

Journal reference:

Lwin, MO, et al. (2021) Role of mainstream news media in public health communication during crises: assessing coverage and remediation of disinformation about COVID-19. Health Communication.

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