The reason coronavirus news is so confusing? Dartmouth scientists figured it out

If you were to poll a group of 50 or 100 randomly selected Americans on the coronavirus (overall beliefs, best safety practices, when to use a face mask, etc) chances are you’re going to get quite a few differing opinions. 

A certain degree of uncertainty is unavoidable when addressing a new viral threat like COVID-19, but the sheer level of confusion surrounding the coronavirus throughout this pandemic has been staggering. Now, a new study from Dartmouth College is offering up a partial explanation as to why so many people have a different definition of “the facts” when it comes to COVID-19.

The research team at Dartmouth concludes that a large portion of state, federal (CDC, White House), and even international (WHO) health information on the internet is too confusing for a general audience. In summation, the study’s authors say that such government resources are presenting critical health information and recommendations roughly three grades higher than the recommended reading level for communicating with the general public.

“How public health information is presented can influence understanding of medical recommendations,” comments senior study author Joseph Dexter, a fellow at Dartmouth’s Neukom Institute for Computational Science, in a release. “During a pandemic it is vital that potentially lifesaving guidance be accessible to all audiences.”

Researchers focused on information shared online by the CDC, White House, and various other federal and state U.S. sources during the early stages of the pandemic in April of this year. They noted a constant pattern of complicated words, excessively long and complex sentences, and oftentimes contradictory advice in comparison to other agencies.

A decade ago, the U.S. Plain Writing Act of 2010 mandated that “federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” Moreover, the CDC and numerous other U.S. agencies recommend that medical information intended for the public be presented at no more than an eighth-grade reading level.

A review of 137 different federal and state web pages (FAQ sections, fact sheets) discussing COVID-19 revealed an average reading level of just over the 11th grade.

This research and its findings shouldn’t be considered an indictment of the American peoples’ intelligence or reading comprehension skills. Vital information on a major public health crisis should be presented in the simplest and easiest to understand manner. No one should have to know complex scientific terminology to learn how to keep themselves and their family safe.

“The differences between eighth-grade and 11th-grade reading levels are crucial. Text written at a higher grade level can place greater demands on the reader and cause people to miss key information,” Dexter explains.

Regarding state-level web pages specifically, researchers noted that all 50 states presented coronavirus information above an eighth-grade reading level. Even more troubling, web pages from nine of the 10 states with the worst literacy levels in the nation were written at a 10th-grade level.

The team at Dartmouth worries that if people struggle to understand the information provided by these trustworthy sources, they’ll end up turning to less legitimate coronavirus news and information portals. 

“Information about COVID-19 can be complex, contradictory, and sometimes false. It is important that members of the public be able to use public health recommendations from trustworthy sources and not have to turn to less reliable outlets,” Dexter says.

In addition to all that, researchers also examined 18 international COVID-19 information sources (15 government sites, 3 public health agencies including the WHO). Once again, all of these pages presented information above an eighth-grade reading level in at least one way (sentence length, word complexity).

“WHO coordinates a major effort to redirect anyone searching for information about COVID-19 to reliable sources,” concludes study co-author Vishala Mishra, a researcher at Madras Medical College. “Therefore, it becomes especially relevant for governments and health agencies, such as WHO and CDC, to provide more accessible health information that matches the public’s health literacy.”

COVID-19 has complicated all of our lives to seemingly no end. Hopefully, this study helps health agencies, governments, and news sources all over the world recognize that presenting coronavirus information and recommendations as simply as possible can help mitigate some of those complications.

The full study can be found here, published in JAMA Network Open.