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August 11, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:30am

Ofcom: In week 67 of pandemic public still hungry for coronavirus news but misinformation still widespread

By Charlotte Tobitt

Eight in ten people were still accessing news about Covid-19 daily last month, 16 months on from the start of the pandemic.

At the end of March 2020, the start of the UK’s first lockdown, 99% of the online over-16 population were reading, viewing or listening to Covid-19 news every day.

By the start of July 2021, this had fallen to 81%.

Ofcom commissioned regular surveys of around 2,000 people about Covid-19 news consumption since March last year, initially weekly and then monthly. The survey is representative of the 87% of the UK’s population that is online.

Far fewer people said they were trying to avoid Covid-19 news – 59% of respondents last March compared to 41% now.

And the so-called mainstream media became more trusted, with 62% saying it was exaggerating the seriousness of Covid-19 last March compared to 50% now.

Covid-19 news sources

Asked which sources of news and information people used, every category went down between March 2020 and July 2021 alongside the number seeking news every day.

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The number getting information from officials in the previous week declined by the most percentage points – from 52% to 31% – possibly reflecting the keenness for officials at the start of the pandemic and the now-defunct daily televised press briefings.

Traditional broadcasters, newspapers and radio stations were collectively used by 93% of people in the first week of the March 2020 lockdown. At the start of July they were still used by 84% of respondents, 62% of whom said traditional media was their most important news source.

[Read more: First week of Ofcom research showed more people turning to national media during lockdown]

TV remained the biggest medium, with use falling from 80% to 65%, while use of newspaper brands in print and online fell from 43% to 27% and radio fell from 34% to 27%.

BBC services continued to be used by two-thirds of people, compared to 82% last March, while non-BBC broadcasters saw usage fall from 56% to 42%.

BBC TV remained by far the most important source of information for people throughout the pandemic, despite a dip from 36% to 25% of people who said it was their most important source.

BBC online was the second most important, named by 12% and then 11% of people.

Evolution of Covid-19 misinformation

Far fewer people said they had come across Covid-19 misinformation in the previous week - 46% at the end of March 2020 and 25% in July this year.

But a similar number said they found it hard to identify what was true or false about coronavirus (42% vs 41%).

In the first survey, carried out between 27 and 29 March 2020, the most common pieces of information people came across (from a list compiled by Ofcom) were all around claims of Covid-19 cures/immune boosters:

  • Drinking water more frequently (seen by 35%)
  • Gargling with salt water (24%)
  • Eating warm food/drink and avoiding cold food/drink (24%)
  • Increasing use of natural remedies such as colloidal silver, essential oils, garlic, MMS (chlorine dioxide) or vitamin C (22%)
  • Putting clothes in the sun to disinfect them (11%)
  • Drinking more lemon juice (10%)

The study shows how misinformation has developed since the first days of the pandemic. These were the most common claims seen by participants from Ofcom’s suggested list:

  • Face masks offer no protection or are harmful (seen by 20%)
  • The number of deaths linked to Covid-19 is in reality much lower than the number reported (18%)
  • The coronavirus vaccine may cause infertility (18%)
  • The number of coronavirus cases is much lower than the figures being reported (16%)
  • The vaccine is a cover for a plan to implant trackable microchips into people (15%)

About the same number did nothing after seeing what they suspected to be false or misleading information (54% and 55%). A slightly smaller number sought tips from trusted media such as the BBC (15% fell to 11%).

However more people this year went on to use fact-checking sites like Full Fact or Snopes - this rose from 10% to 17%.

Slightly more people also asked the person who shared it whether it was accurate (6% to 9%) and blocked it or reported it to a social media platform (7% to 10%).

Last month one-third of respondents had concerns about the amount of false or misleading information they might be getting about the coronavirus while 57% were worried about the amount of misinformation others may be getting.

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