Researchers: Dr. Christina Viehmann (JGU), Jun.-Prof. Dr. Marc Ziegele (HHU Düsseldorf), Prof. Dr. Oliver Quiring (JGU)
Project term: Since March 2020
Background and major project goals: Images of crowded hospital corridors and exponential growth curves raised the public awareness in Germany for the corona pandemic in March 2020. Although there had been warnings months earlier about the novel corona virus spreading rapidly from the Chinese region of Hubei into the world, the awareness of an actual threat to the German population did not take hold until much later, around the beginning of March. Then, however, events followed in quick succession and culminated in historically unique cuts in civil rights and personal liberties: contact bans, strict hygiene rules, the dictates of social distance, restrictions on outdoor activities, closed borders and a broad containment of public life. These severe measures originated in the concern for people's health, especially for certain risk groups such as the elderly and people with pre-existing illness. This new and highly dynamic situation involved a high level of uncertainty and had direct, personal consequences for many people – a combination that resulted in an enormously high need for information. Accordingly, the study aimed at answering the following questions:
- Where did people obtain current information on the corona pandemic?
Here we put a special focus on the role of mass media, particularly the differentiation between traditional and digital mass media.
- How did their information use change during the crisis?
Crises are highly dynamic events. Accordingly, also the patterns of information use can change rapidly. Identifying these processes of change is important to understand how shifts of opinion can occur.
Based on the insights regarding the use of information, we also wanted to find out:
- Which impression of the public debate did people obtain? Did they perceive the public discourse as solution-oriented and level-headed or did it appear dramatized and alarmist to them?
Finally, we focused on the social consequences:
- What consequences did the way of information use have for people’s sense of community?
- On this basis, to what extent were people willing to take actions to keeping the virus at bay?
Method: Panel survey covering five survey waves from March/April 2020 till November 2021. The survey was administered by the survey provider YouGov Germany as an online survey among a quota sample representing the German population aged 18+ with regards to the characteristics age, gender, and home region.
Overview of survey waves:
- Wave 1 - field period: March 24-26, 2020: n = 2,038 respondents. The first wave was conducted immediately after the announcement of the first lockdown at the end of March 2020 in Germany.
Wave 2 - field period: April 9-15, 2020: n = 1,620 respondents. The second wave followed three weeks later, during the Easter holidays, and ended one day before the federal government, together with the states, made a decision on initial relaxations.
Wave 3 - field period: 28.07-06.08.2020 : n = 2,062 respondents. The third wave was conducted three months after the end of the first lockdown. At this time, the incidence was rather low and a potential threat through travelers returning from other countries was discussed.
Wave 4 - field period: 3.11-11.112020: n = 2,053 respondents. The fourth survey wave was conducted after the second lockdown began in early November 2020. After infection rates rose sharply in October, the federal government, along with state governments, felt compelled to impose another lockdown with hospitality closures and contact restrictions. Schools and retail stores were still open at this time.
Wave 5 - Field period: 12. - 24.11.2021: n = 2,191 respondents. After one more year living with the pandemic, a new survey wave was conducted one year after the fourth survey wave capturing the increased severity of the corona pandemic during the winter months. At that time, restrictions for the unvaccinated were particularly important.
Viehmann, C., Ziegele, M., & Quiring, O. (2021). Communication, Cohesion, and Corona: The Impact of People’s Use of Different Information Sources on their Sense of Societal Cohesion in Times of Crises. Journalism Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/1461670X.2021.1965907
Findings from the first wave at the end of March (24.-26.03)
Germany in times of the Corona crisis: Well informed and with a strengthened sense of community into an uncertain future?
Mix of established media, private contacts, and official sources
The Germans obtained current information on the corona pandemic primarily through a mix of established media, private contacts, and official sources:
The information provided by the public service broadcasting (via radio, television, online and mobile devices) was used by 66% of Germans daily and by a quarter even several times a day. However, almost a fifth of the respondents did not even use these media outlets at all. Private contacts were also an important source of information for Germans in times of the Corona crisis: In personal conversations, for example over the phone, but also via WhatsApp or other messaging services, just over half of Germans received information almost daily or several times a day. Official information from public authorities, research institutes and politicians was important as well, with 57% of respondents saying they used it almost daily or more frequently.
Compared to this, information from newspapers and private broadcasting and their online offerings played a less important role: 44% and 45% of Germans respectively reported using private television or regional newspapers almost daily or more often. Only a third of respondents used nationally distributed newspapers and political magazines (including their online and mobile offerings) daily to find out about the Corona crisis.
The importance of the established media as sources of information in the crisis is also reflected in the high level of trust that they enjoy among the Germans: almost half of respondents (48%) shared the impression that one can rely on the established media in the current situation. A further 34% agreed with the statement, at least in part. Only 18% rejected this position.
Social media was also indispensable in the Corona crisis for many Germans: 45% used the information that established media disseminated via their Facebook or Twitter accounts almost daily up to several times a day. However, over a third also used the information provided by alternative news sites on Facebook, Twitter and Co. almost daily or more often. Shared content from friends and acquaintances about the newsfeeds on social networks (i.e., outside of private messages) was also consulted by just over a third of respondents almost daily and more frequently.
Public debate seems calm and solution-oriented, politicians are trusted to solve the crisis
Despite the uncertainty and the fact that developments in the last days of March have regularly overlapped, the current public debate on Corona seemed to a majority of the population little dramatized, but rather solution-oriented.
Asking people about what impression they got of the current societal discussion around the Corona crisis, 43% of the respondents shared the position that solutions were discussed constructively (20% did not share this impression or rather did not). On the other hand, only 25% of Germans found that the situation has been overly dramatized in the public debate. Considerably more (40%) did not share this impression.
The crisis also posed a challenge for politicians. At the time of the survey at the end of March, a third of Germans found that policymakers were overwhelmed by the crisis (37%). However, 46% also trusted them to solve the crisis (in contrast, 20% said that they do not have this confidence).
Although the public debate on Corona seemed calm and constructive, and the politicians’ crisis management has also been trusted, many Germans were concerned. Nearly half were worried about what was still to come in the crisis (44%) and about potential personal consequences of the crisis (46%).
Impressions between young and old drift apart
Particularly two groups in the population have been repeatedly highlighted in the current discussion: On the one hand the elderly, who have a higher risk of a severe suffering in case of a corona infection. On the other hand, the younger ones, whose health is unlikely to be threatened by the virus in a comparable way, but who are supposed to show solidarity in order to minimize the risk of an infection for the more vulnerable groups. As a result, these groups may differ in their perception of the current debate in society.
In fact, among the over-55s the impression clearly dominated that the debate about Corona is solution-oriented. By contrast, only a third of the two youngest age groups (18-24 years, 25-34 years) shared this impression. On the contrary, among the younger ones, there was a much greater share of respondents who shared the impression that the discussion has been dramatized (39% among the 18-24 years old), while among the over-55s, only a fifth saw it that way. This shows how perceptions of the current crisis have drifted apart between the younger and older ones in the population. This poses a potential for tension and could even nourish doubts on the strongly invoked credo of social cohesion.
A strong sense of community – but with some limitations
What about the sense of community that has repeatedly been invoked these days: By and large, most Germans had the impression that society holds together. More than three quarters of respondents felt that in the current situation everyone is in the same boat. A similar number (67%) felt that most in society agreed on the fact that cohesion is important now. There are no differences between the answers of the young and the old in society. Less than a tenth of the respondents did not agree with this community perspective.
Nevertheless, there are indications that tarnish the harmonious picture of social cohesion: a third of Germans thought that most people in society do not care about what happens to others. 41% found that most Germans only have their own well-being in mind. Asked explicitly about the behavior of their fellows, 41% also said that they were outraged by the behavior of their fellow citizens (top box answers: rather agree and fully agree).
Anti-crisis activism: Most people would remind others to stick to the rules
Following the distance rules, sticking to the hygiene regulations, and acting responsible when shopping – many are convinced that the Corona pandemic can only be successfully tackled if people take the crisis seriously and adhere to certain rules. But how do Germans react when others trivialize the crisis or do not behave prudently? Nearly half of those surveyed said they were trying to convince those doubting of the seriousness of the situation. A similar number of respondents said they ask others to keep the necessary distance when shopping, and 39% said they let people stockpiling groceries know, for example by rolling their eyes, that they disapprove their behavior.
Findings from the second wave in mid-April (9-15 April)
Change in the information use after three weeks of lockdown: Considerable losses for all non-journalistic sources
A crisis is considered as a highly dynamic situation. Accordingly, it is hardly plausible that the use of information will remain stable during this time. But what changes have taken place in the three-week period that included the culmination of the so-called lockdown? The first wave of interviews (24-26 March) provides a snapshot right at the beginning, one day after the Federal Government imposed the far-reaching contact restrictions. The second wave of the survey (9-15 April) outlines the situation after three weeks of strict restrictions on social contacts and public life. The survey took place over the Easter holidays and ended the day before the first easings were announced by the Federal Government and the States.
Two overarching trends are emerging: firstly, the need for information seemed to cease. The Germans used all the sources of information examined in the study less frequently or less intensively. Secondly, if we look at the decline for different sources of information, we can see that, although there are no winners, there are clear losers among the sources of information – namely, all non-journalistic sources. The largest decrease in use has been reported for all private contacts – no matter whether people interacted with their friends, acquaintances and colleagues directly, via private messages on social networks such as WhatsApp, or via publicly shared content from friends, acquaintances, and colleagues on social networks. The importance of information from public authorities and research institutions has decreased too. After three weeks of lockdown, only 47% of Germans, compared to 57%, said they used this information daily and more frequently. Finally, alternative media and influencers also experienced a decline in intensive, i.e. daily use among the German population. In sum, it seems that the Germans are loyal to the journalistically curated sources of information and are turning away from the other sources, at least in part.
The data is based on a two-wave online survey conducted by YouGov Deutschland GmbH. The first wave commenced between the 24th until the 26th of March with 2,038 people answering the questions. In the second wave between the 9th and 15th of April, 1,620 people took part for a second time. Participants were recruited from the Germany panel of YouGov following quotas for the characteristics age, gender, and region. As a consequence, the weighted results can be regarded as representative for the German population aged 18 and above. The statistical uncertainty covers a range between 1.0 and 2.2 percentage points for the first wave of our survey. This means that if 60 percent of the respondents say that they used public service broadcasting almost daily or more frequently for information, then the true figure is between 57.8 percent and 62.2 percent. For the second wave, the uncertainty covers a range from 1.1 to 2.5 percentage points (the smaller sample is the reason for the larger range).