In whom do we trust?

The past decade has been characterized by crisis after crisis. Who do people listen to when there is a crisis? Whose advice do they take, and what kind of information do they rely on? In times of social media and fake news, it turns out that people are listening to both newspapers and governmental authorities. That is the conclusion reached by researchers from Jönköping International Business School (JIBS) at Jönköping University and the Stockholm School of Economics in a new research study.

In times of crisis, local newspapers play an important role according to researchers.

To answer these questions, the researchers investigated people’s behavior during the Covid-19 pandemic. Using mobility data from Google users in Sweden, they traced people’s daily movements across various places, such as public transport, supermarkets, and workplaces. The researchers used these data to study people’s compliance with public health advice, including recommendations to work from home and practice social distancing.

The main finding the researchers made was that people pay attention to their local newspaper. Reports about infections, vaccination, and other Covid-19 related news had large effects on individuals’ mobility.

“We wanted to dig deeper and understand what kind of information is most effective in changing people’s behavior, and so we analyzed over 200,000 articles about the pandemic published by newspapers across Sweden,” says Marcel Garz, Associate Professor in Economics at JIBS.

Three key insights

The researchers also identified three key insights:

1. Crisis managers vs. experts: People are more responsive when advice comes from the government rather than scientists. The reason is that university professors and other experts often give sophisticated explanations, whereas governmental statements use simple language that can be easily understood.

2. Facts vs. opinions: Communication that relies on facts rather than opinions effectively makes people to change their behaviour. In contrast, people are not particularly responsive to debate articles, editorials, and commentaries.

3. Local vs. national news: Information from the municipality or region has a greater impact than national news. That is, if the information is directly applicable to people’s everyday life, they are more likely to respond.

Hence, according to the researchers, there are three simple rules for authorities when they want to guide the population through a crisis: use simple language, present the facts, and point out why something is personally relevant.

Important to invest in local media

“In times of social media and fake news, it is nice to see that people rely on hard facts and quality information from their local newspaper. Unfortunately, the newspaper industry has been struggling to raise the resources for local journalism. Many media outlets have had to close down, while others have been acquired by big media companies,” says Marcel Garz.

As a society, Marcel Garz says, we should do more to stop the decline of local journalism – it will, according to him, pay off not only during crises but to support democracy in general.

The study, "Media coverage and pandemic behavior: Evidence from Sweden," is conducted by Marcel Garz from JIBS and Maiting Zhuang from the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE), Stockholm School of Economics, and is published in Health Economics.