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UF Health study finds association between news consumption and COVID-19 precautions

(Photo by Michael Slaten, without modification; licensed under CC BY 4.0.)

A new University of Florida College of Medicine study reinforces the influence of the news media during a health emergency, showing older adults who spent more time following the news every day were more likely to adhere to recommended COVID-19 safety precautions early in the pandemic.

This also occurred in older adults who reported increased social media use, compared with those who decreased social media engagement.

“Media can be a powerful way to get health information out to people and get them to shift their behavior,” said Todd Manini, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and a professor in the college’s department of health outcomes and biomedical informatics.

The UF College of Medicine is part of UF Health, the university’s academic health center.

“I think our study underlines that the news is an important public health tool and shows how responsible, clear and consistent reporting by the media is influential in promoting precautionary measures that save lives,” said Manini, director of the UF Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center and a member of the UF Institute on Aging.

The study, published in the journal JMIR Formative Research in May, acknowledged the difficulty of shifting an individual’s beliefs.

“Although public health campaigns and messaging through the media have demonstrated small effects on attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, these effects are believed to accumulate — through reprise and broad reach — to have a large impact on society,” the study said.

The researchers surveyed more than 1,000 adults with a mean age of 73 and found those who watched or read less than an hour of daily news were significantly less likely to use COVID-19 precautions compared with more active news consumers.

Indeed, the study found the likelihood of older adults using precautions to prevent coronavirus infection increased as their news consumption climbed.

Safety precautions the study authors asked about included hand-washing or sanitizing, masks, social distancing and canceling a doctor’s appointment. COVID-19 vaccines were not yet available at the time of the survey.

Manini said the investigation did not try to identify the specific news sources used nor ask if participants were liberal or conservative. However, he said, it is likely it included people of all political persuasions.

The survey also was conducted in May and June 2020, not long after a public health emergency had been declared. This is before the political divide on the use of precautions hardened, Manini said.

Emily Smail, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and a former postdoctoral fellow in the department of health outcomes and biomedical informatics, said older adults’ media use has been understudied.

“These findings show that media outlets have a responsibility to report timely and fact-based information in the face of a health crisis to help protect the lives of older adults,” Smail said.

Other study authors include Christopher Kaufmann, Ph.D., M.H.S., a member of the UF Institute on Aging; Adam Wolach, M.D., a resident physician associated with the institute; Erta Cenko, M.S.P.H., a doctoral student in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professionsdepartment of epidemiology; and UF medical student Torie Livingston.

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Bill Levesque
Science Writer

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