Health News During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Health news often gets it wrong when discussing vaccine safety or Ebola threats, often creating misleading reports that damage trust between citizens and health professionals, inducing fearful responses such as anger that lead to more people believing falsehoods about health-related topics and making people susceptible to further misinforming themselves through false reports. Such harmful impacts have ripple effects throughout society including schools where fake health news prevent students from attending science classes and developing critical thinking abilities.

We conducted this research to understand the characteristics and implications of pandemic-related health news media articles for public health strategies relying on them. At the height of the pandemic, 12 news outlets from each domestic market produced 1,331 randomly sampled news media articles related to COVID-19 public health or policy information during this time (Methods). We analyzed their content. Hoffman and Justicz (2016) developed a coding tool for us to assess scientific quality and sensationalism. Scientific quality was defined based on our current understanding of disease risks and protective measures; sensationalism referred to the degree to which news media articles presented their own interpretation of scientific knowledge.

No significant variations were seen in scientific quality or sensationalism over time, with one minor exception on 3 July 2020 related to limited coverage of healthcare in news media articles about COVID-19 public health or policy (Fig. 5). News media articles focused on COVID-19 were classified according to which of several societal sectors they covered: healthcare, leisure and entertainment, economics/commerce/government and politics and social services/welfare provision/welfare services they were related to (up to two per article).

Results indicated that scientific quality did not improve during the course of the pandemic; however, sensationalism gradually reduced as knowledge about COVID-19 increased and protective measures became available. Yet both low scientific quality and sensationalism remained hallmarks of pandemic news media reporting; possibly contributing to misinformation during its spread during COVID-19 pandemic.

Health news often makes unsubstantiated and misleading claims based on legitimate studies, even when reporting them accurately. For instance, an announcement in 2021 of a temporary pacemaker that treats abnormal heart rhythms temporarily before dissolving into the body was overexaggerated in headlines. The story should have clarified that pacemakers were only tested in mice and that this technology will likely not become accessible to patients any time soon. Be mindful that scientific breakthroughs often take time, with most research findings not immediately being implemented into clinical practice or used as treatments. Therefore, understanding what constitutes a “breakthrough” allows you to discern between hype and reality; this enables you to better evaluate health news sources while also protecting yourself against falling for false or fake claims.

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