Who do Americans trust most for information about COVID-19?

Jennifer Marlon, Edward Maibach, Matthew Ballew, Parrish Bergquist, Matthew Goldberg, Abel Gustafson, John Kotcher, Seth Rosenthal, Xinran Wang and Anthony Leiserowitz

COVID-19 has generated a tremendous desire for news and information among the American public. Information was and is still needed to understand what the virus is, where it is spreading, and what actions best reduce the risk of infection. Since the outbreak began in the U.S., news consumption has risen 36% globally, and 43% of Americans say they are watching more news coverage. Unfortunately, whether we prefer to find news online like 34% of Americans, on TV (44%), or elsewhere, navigating a sea of misinformation has become a familiar part of the process.

The need for information about the coronavirus coupled with the pervasiveness of misinformation means that Americans are continually confronted with decisions about where to find reliable news, who to trust, and what to believe from different sources. For political issues, people often trust sources who share their political views, and distrust those who do not. Recent polling indicates that Americans’ attitudes and decision making about COVID-19 are also now increasingly shaped by partisan ideology and likely by partisan news sources.

In this context, we examined who Americans trust and distrust for information about COVID-19. By combining our survey data with geographic and demographic information from the U.S. Census Bureau we were able to estimate and map the geographic variations in trust for COVID-19 information across all 50 states. We find that in every state, over 90% of Americans somewhat or strongly trust their own doctors and over 87% trust infectious disease experts and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for reliable information about COVID-19. Likewise, over 80% of Americans in every state trust their own family and friends as a source of information about COVID-19.

Fig. 1. Estimated percentage of Americans in all 50 states who “somewhat” or “strongly trust” different sources of information about COVID-19. State-level estimates (margin of error +/-8) were generated using a multilevel model based on age, gender, education, race, and state (see Howe et al., 2015). The survey was conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (climatecommunication.yale.edu) and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication (climatechangecommunication.org) and fielded by Climate Nexus Polling (climatenexus.org/polls/climate-change-polling/). Interview dates: April 3 -7, 2020. Average survey margin of error +/- 2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Trust in different media sources, however, is much more varied. Local TV is the most trusted media source, with 82% of Americans saying they somewhat or strongly trust their local broadcasts. Many fewer people trust national media networks (CNN, 57%; MSNBC, 52%; and FOX News, 52%). 

Local and state government officials are the most-trusted government source (74% and 72%, respectively). Members of Congress (55%) are trusted by far fewer Americans, and President Trump is the only source trusted by fewer than half of Americans (48%) for information about COVID-19.

Our data also indicate that there is less geographic variation in trusted sources than one might expect given the increasing partisanship in general and around COVID-19 in particular. In fact, the range of variability in levels of trust across all 50 states is no more than 4 percentage points for any source.

Our survey was conducted in early April, and sentiment and opinions about the virus are dynamic and continue to evolve. Evidence from other surveys also show that strong majorities of Americans nationally trust the CDC, the WHO, and their state and local governments as sources of information about the coronavirus. Thus, whether people live in rural, suburban, or urban America, or live in a blue, red, or purple state–doctors and disease experts, family and friends, and local TV and government officials, are widely considered trusted sources of information about this life-threatening risk. 

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