Public anxiety and distrust due to perceived politicization and media sensationalism during early COVID-19 media messaging

Lauren Jodi Van Scoy, Bethany Snyder, Erin L. Miller, Olubukola Toyobo, Ashmita Grewel, Giang Ha, Sarah Gillespie, Megha Patel, Jordyn Reilly, Aleksandra E. Zgierska, Robert P. Lennon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Background: Understanding early COVID-19 messaging is essential for improving future public health responses to pandemics. This study applied aspects of both media dependency theory and a source credibility framework to explore how COVID-19 pandemic messaging was perceived by the public within one month of COVID-19 being declared a pandemic. Methods: We administered a cross-sectional, mixed methods online survey in March, 2020 to Pennsylvanian adults (N = 538) enrolled in a health network. Participants were 58% female, 56% with a Bachelor’s Degree or higher, and 50% from minority racial backgrounds. Results: Thematic analysis revealed six major themes describing flawed messaging about the pandemic, with the resulting confusion, distrust, and anxiety leading to a desire for a single source of information. Distrust of both media and government arose from perceived contradictory messages, sensationalized messages, and information overload. Relationships between themes are mapped into a conceptual model, which demonstrates the destructive and cyclic relationship between the media and the public anxiety reported in our data. Conclusions: Practical implications of our findings suggest that public health messaging initiatives should include solutions that seek to improve trust, source credibility and work to centralize, unify, and streamline delivery of information during a pandemic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)193-205
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Communication in Healthcare
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Communication
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health Information Management


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