UGA study shows role of media in reducing COVID-19 transmission in China

Media coverage played an important role in curbing the spread of COVID-19 in China, according to new research from the University of Georgia.

The study found that consistent reporting about the severity of the virus and its transmission helped to reduce population movement within and across provinces in the early months of the pandemic.

Reducing population mobility quickly was key to getting the outbreak under control, says author Zhuo “Adam” Chen, an associate professor of health policy and management at UGA’s College of Public Health.

“Late January and early February in China is the high mobility season when the Lunar New Year comes. A large percentage of the Chinese population are migrant workers. They come back from the city to their hometowns to get together with extended family, and that would pose a much higher risk,” he said.

Chen and his colleagues hypothesized that early media coverage – namely news covering daily reports from official government sources – helped to convince Chinese citizens that new travel and physical distancing guidelines should be observed.

Communication is a critical part of public health strategy during a disease outbreak, but it can be difficult to know how much of a role media plays in keeping the public informed and influencing behaviors, compared to other variables like formal travel bans, for example.

To test media coverage’s direct impact on population movement, the researchers ran a simulation to see how people would have moved about the country in the absence of regular communication.

In the earliest stages of the pandemic, when there were still a lot of unknowns about the virus and how it spread, the role of media was limited. After February, however, they observed a drop in population movement and, later, a drop in new cases.

“We did see through causal pathways that media convinced people that COVID-19 was a threat. It did change behavior,” said Chen.

Chen says these results support the important role of news media as a resource during a public health crisis, though Chen adds that the information must be viewed as credible and timely in order to work – a lesson, he says, that some countries had more success with than others.

The study, “Role of media coverage in mitigating COVID-19 transmission: Evidence from China,” was published online in Technological Forecasting and Social Change. Read it online here.

– Lauren Baggett

Posted on January 19, 2021.