Column by Randy Hirokawa: Navigating the morass of media information regarding COVID-19

It is important that we are mindful of whose opinions and beliefs we trust, and what the basis of their opinions and beliefs are.


This column is part of a series on the COVID-19 health crisis written by expert faculty and staff at UH Hilo.


Randy Hirokawa
Randy Hirokawa

By Randy Hirokawa
Professor of Communication
Director, Health Professions Student Center
University of Hawai‘i at Hilo

Like many of you, I find myself struggling to navigate through the morass of conflicting media information surrounding the COVID-19 virus and pandemic. Whether your preferred media source is CNN, MNBC, FOX, or some other sources on TV and/or the internet, we all are faced with a daily deluge of contradictory information about COVID-19. We hear the president of the United States saying that businesses and the economy will return to normalcy by the end of April, but then hear medical and public health experts optimistically claiming that it will be well into the summer, if not the fall, before everyday life will return to normalcy.

We also hear some claiming that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a “new normal” for us where social distancing will become an established way of life for all of us. Gideon Lichfield (March 17, 2020) writes in the MIT Technology Review:

“We all want things to go back to normal quickly. But what most of us have probably not yet realized . . . is that things won’t go back to normal after a few weeks, or even a few months. Some things never will. To stop coronavirus we will need to radically change almost everything we do: how we work, exercise, socialize, shop, manage our health, educate our kids, and take care of family members.”

As consumers of the media, what are we to believe in the face of this conflicting information? How do we navigate the morass of contradictory media messages about when, or if, things will return to normalcy? Over 60 years ago, two mass communication scholars named Elihu Katz and and Paul Lazarsfeld proposed a theory called “Intermedia Theory” that provides an answer (Katz and Lazarsfeld, 1955). They proposed that we rely on our social networks to help us make sense of what we hear or read in the media. In other words, when we are presented with confusing media messages, we usually turn to family and friends whose opinions we value and trust to help us figure things out.

When news about the COVID-19 virus first hit the media about a month ago, we were presented with a lot of conflicting (mis) information about the COVID-19 virus. We received conflicting information about the severity of the COVID-19 virus; we received conflicting information about the comparisons of COVID-19 to SARS, swine flu, and MERS viruses; we received conflicting information about the incubation period of the COVID-19 virus; we received conflicting information about how the COVID-19 virus was spread from person to person; we received conflicting information about the development of a vaccine, and therapeutic treatments, for the COVID-19 virus and we received conflicting information about how quickly the COVID-19 virus was spreading worldwide.

Amid all this conflicting information, I did exactly what Intermedia Theory said I would: I talked to people in my social network to see what they thought about the COVID-19 virus and pandemic. Just as Intermedia Theory predicted, I relied on the opinions of trusted members of my social network to decide what to believe myself. Like my trusted friends, I reached the conclusion that the media was “sensationalizing” the COVID-19 pandemic and there wasn’t much to worry about. I continued to go about business-as-usual: I went to my office every day; I went to public venues to play music; I went to the gym to work out daily; and I played softball in the local kupuna (senior) softball league.

Within a week, the media began reporting that COVID-19 was spreading quickly across the globe, and countries like China, South Korea, and Italy were reporting large numbers of people contracting, and dying from, the virus. Soon after, the media reported the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States in Seattle, Washington, and not long after that, we learned about the death of 10 people from COVID-19 at an elderly care home in Seattle. Shortly there after, the media began reporting rapid increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths in New York City.

Amid all this bad news, we continued receive conflicting information about the threat of the pandemic, the severity of the outbreaks in the U.S., the risks of contracting the virus in the United States, the ability of our healthcare system to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, the availability of equipment (like ventilators) to treat the symptoms of the virus, and the progress being made to develop a vaccine and therapeutic treatments for the virus. Even as states like Washington, New York, and eventually Hawai‘i began closing schools, and issuing stay-at-home and social distancing mandates to help slow the spread of COVID-19, we continued receive conflicting information in the media about whether those practices were necessary, and how long they should continue.

Media information about the COVID-19 pandemic was so overwhelming, and so conflicting, that many of us had no idea what to believe. Again, many of us did exactly what Intermedia Theory said we would do: We consulted with people in our social network to help us decide what to believe. In my case, instead of relying just on my trusted friends in my social network, I also expanded my conversation with family members—namely, my three children—who were scientifically trained in health-related fields. Their views and opinions became instrumental is shaping my beliefs about the COVID-19 virus and pandemic. I became convinced that COVID-19 was a serious threat; I became convinced that I could die if I contracted the virus; I became convinced that shelter-at-home and social distancing was necessary to protect me, and my family, from the virus; and I became convinced that social distancing practices would have to continue to slow the spread of the virus until we can develop a vaccine, or an effective therapeutic treatment, for the COVID-19 virus. As a result, I stopped doing business-as-usual: I stopped making unnecessary trips to my office and stores; I stopped going out to play music; I stopped going to the gym; and I even stopped playing softball.

None of us knows how the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 will play itself out, or when we will emerge on the other side of this crisis. What I do know is that throughout it, we will continue to receive conflicting information about it. Intermedia Theory tells us that we will rely heavily on our social networks to help navigate through this morass of conflicting media information. As we do so, it is important that we are mindful of whose opinions and beliefs we trust, and what the basis of their opinions and beliefs are. I, for one, have chosen to rely on people in my social network who are scientifically-trained, and who therefore rely on scientific data to inform their opinions. I am not saying that everyone should do as I’ve done.  But I am saying that everyone should at least be mindful of who is/are helping to shape and influence our attitudes, beliefs, and practices regarding the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

Reference

Katz, E., & Lazarsfeld, P. F. (1955). Personal influence: The part played by people in the flow of mass communication. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

 

Randy Hirokawa is known for his expertise in the area of small group communication and group decision-making effectiveness. His scholarship has contributed to the development of a theory that explains how group decision-making performance is affected by group communication processes. This theory has been identified as one of the three most influential theories of small group communication by many textbook authors. Learn more about his research.