Mar 11, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Axios-Ipsos poll: Media habits defined the COVID culture war

Trust in the CDC by primary news source
Data: Axios/Ipsos polling; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The key factor determining how Americans have handled COVID-19 — more than race, education or even political affiliation — is where they get their news, according to an analysis of two years of data from our Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index.

Why it matters: Partisan divisions weaken U.S. leaders' ability to deal with such existential crises — and the modern media landscape feeds that cycle.

By the numbers: In March 2020, when everything changed, roughly nine in 10 Americans, regardless of their preferred media outlet, said they trusted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Within weeks, though, that trust was plunging among Americans who mostly watch Fox News or other conservative outlets, as well as those who cited no source.
  • By the end of last month, just 16% of those who said they get most of their news from Fox or other conservative outlets still said they trust the CDC, compared to 77% of those who favor network news and major national newspapers and 87% of those who primarily watch CNN or MSNBC.

People who primarily got their news from Fox or other conservative media outlets were also more likely to be unvaccinated, and to report that they had tested positive for COVID-19 at some point during the pandemic.

  • By the end of last month, 77% of respondents overall said they’d been at least partially vaccinated. For Republicans and for watchers of Fox and other conservative media, it was about 10 percentage points lower.
  • The highest vaccination rates among respondents were Democrats (87%) and those whose primary news sources were network TV or major national newspapers (86%). The lowest vaccination rate (57%) was among those saying they had no primary source for news.
Percentage who say they have tested positive for COVID-19
Data: Axios/Ipsos polling; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Between the lines: Americans' perceived risk from COVID peaked during the spike in cases in November and December of 2020, when 71% of respondents said returning to normal pre-COVID routines was a large or moderate risk.

  • The lowest perceived risk was June 2021, after vaccines became widely available but before the Delta wave, when 29% perceived a large or moderate risk. We are now somewhere in between, with roughly half (48%) of Americans perceiving their old routines to be risky.
Percentage who say they ate at a restaurant or visited friends in the previous week
Data: Axios/Ipsos polling; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The big picture: America changed because of the pandemic, and the way we view health, education and the workplace may be permanently altered.

  • A significant segment of society is still masking outside the home with all indications they'll keep doing so on airplanes, in crowds and if they feel ill, even after mandates are gone.
  • The crisis sped a technological revolution around work. Expectations about remote and hybrid work may be forever changed.
  • The pandemic — and public health officials' and employers’ push for vaccinations — also challenged people's perceptions about the freedom to make choices about their own bodies. And it underscored the differences between individual states and between urban, suburban and rural attitudes.

What they're saying: "This is the biggest forced behavior change we've seen in American history since World War II," said Ipsos pollster and senior vice president Chris Jackson.

  • "But there's also ways that preexisting American society imposed its structure on the issue," he said. "America was a very divided, partisan country before COVID came along and that structure really imposed itself on how we responded.
  • "It does illustrate the power of elite messengers to shape public opinion," from former President Trump and President Biden to dominant media personalities, Jackson said. "That shaped how America viewed the pandemic."

"America changed and is still changed," said Cliff Young, president of Ipsos U.S. Public Affairs. "We will always be marked by this."

  • "We are super-divided, hyper-partisan. We live in these split realities and that's a fact of life and it will be a fact of life looking into the medium or long term, whether it's a pandemic or some other crisis," Young said.
  • "The counterpoint is Ukraine right now. We still have partisan differences but a tendency for convergence.
  • "Maybe it's the type of existential threat that cuts to people's views of individual freedom — a fundamental value of 'don't tell me what to do.'"

Methodology: The data is drawn from 63 waves of Axios/Ipsos polling conducted since March 13, 2020 by Ipsos' KnowledgePanel®. Each poll is based on a nationally representative probability sample of roughly 1,000 U.S. adults age 18 or older.

  • The margin of sampling error is ±3.0-3.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, for results based on the entire sample of adults.
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