Americans have lost trust across the board in the people and institutions informing them about the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and USAFacts.
The poll finds that the percentage of people saying they trust COVID-19 information from their state or local governments, the news media, social media and their friends and family has dropped significantly compared to similar questions in April. A large chunk of Americans say they find it hard to know if coronavirus information is accurate.
Just 16% say they trust coronavirus information from President Donald Trump a great deal or quite a bit, down from 23% in April. And 64% now say they trust Trump only a little or not at all on COVID-19. Only social media, at 72%, is less trusted.
Even though Paula Randolph opposes the Republican president, she said she trusted the White House on coronavirus information when the pandemic started.
"Because of the history of the presidency of the United States, it was no matter what, they'll tell us the facts," said Randolph, a 49-year-old disabled woman in Dixon, Missouri. "It became a circus, and I no longer trust it."
She even remembers the day she lost trust in the White House on the coronavirus: April 30. Trump, who by that point had been promoting an anti-malaria drug unproven on COVID-19, had a press conference on the pandemic that day, calling his response to the virus "really spectacular."
The family doctor ranks highest when it comes to whom Americans trust for information about the coronavirus, with 53% saying they trust their health provider a great deal or quite a bit. After their doctors, 36% said they have high trust in federal health officials at agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, 26% in state or local governments, 18% in news media, 17% in family and friends, 16% in Trump, 12% in search engines and just 6% in social media.
Experts in health, science and political communication said they see three reasons for the drop in trust: fear, politics and the public watching science messily forming in real time.
"The fact that trust dropped in all categories, including health care providers and family and friends, speaks to a really worried society that doesn't feel safe," said David Ropeik, a retired Harvard instructor on risk communication.
The World Health Organization calls the flood of good and bad information on the coronavirus an "infodemic."
Thirty percent of Americans say it is difficult finding factual information about COVID-19. While 48% said they can tell the difference between coronavirus fact and opinion, fewer, 35%, say it's easy to know if that information is true. About as many, 36%, find that difficult, with the remainder saying it's neither easy nor difficult.
Joycelyn Mire, a 71-year-old retired medical financial manager in Louisiana, said she doesn't trust doctors and definitely not the news media for coronavirus information. But she does trust Trump because "I tend to agree with his opinions." Most of all, the Trump supporter said she trusts her own research.
Even as Colorado State University student Jack Hermanson's trust in Trump and federal agencies like the CDC went down, he said he had to trust someone. So he relies on what leaders at school and work tell him.
"The root of a lot of this is fear," said Lisa Gualtieri, a professor of health and community medicine at Tufts University Medical School.
America is watching in real time as the science emerges, like seeing sausage being made, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania communications professor. She said that Trump added to the confusion by hyping the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat the virus, even as reputable scientists, mainstream media and studies call it unproven.
"The public now has multiple cues that say, 'Gee, the science seems to be really confusing at this end. I'm not sure who to trust here,'" Jamieson said. Because of what she perceives as political pressure, she changed from trusting agencies like the CDC to trusting individual scientists, such as top federal infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.
While Democrats worry that pressure on science agencies makes them less trustworthy, Republicans distrust them, saying they're trying to make Trump look bad, said Jennifer Mercieca, a Texas A&M communications professor.
Mitch Spencer, a 59-year-old from Iowa who is retired from the post office and the military, said over the past several months he had "less trust in the government and more trust in just regular news."
A political independent and self-described moderate, Spencer said he watched Fauci say one thing and Trump's team say something else. He trusts Fauci, not Trump, saying the president lies frequently.
The poll found that 37% of Republicans and 87% of Democrats say they trust the president only a little or not at all on the pandemic.
Spencer said it's harder to find information on whether his grandchild should return to school or if a vaccine is safe than whether to wear masks. Overall, just 35% of Americans said it was very or somewhat easy to find the information they need on vaccine safety and 39% on safety of reopening school, the poll showed.
The AP-NORC/USAFacts poll of 1,121 adults was conducted Sept. 15-25 using a sample drawn from NORC's probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.