The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most challenging threats to society and public health since World War II, due to its global spread and its effects on almost every aspect of life. The media as a social organization may play a vital role because it endorses adaptive measures to promote awareness and knowledge about health-related issues and encourages compliance with precautionary actions. The media enjoys widespread rapid access, and, therefore, serves as the major source of information for the general public during the infodemic of COVID-19. An infodemic, as defined by the WHO, requires a decrease in the transmission of false information to the general public (25). Defective and fabricated information will create panic among the masses and affect the psychological well-being of society (26).
The COVID-19 epidemic in Wuhan, China, was reported worldwide, including in Pakistan (27). More focused reporting was observed in the media after its global spread, as emphasized by social responsibility theory. The theory of social responsibility states that it is the professional obligation of the media to recognize the needs of the community (28). Pakistani print, electronic, and social media placed more emphasis on the adoption of preventive measures after the first case was reported in Karachi, Sindh, on 26 February 2020. The use of mass media during the initial phases of the event as a quick, effective, and evident mediator was also suggested by Rogers (29). Media outlets in Pakistan are covering the daily COVID-19 statistics. Lockdown in Pakistan led the general public to be concerned about the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (21–23). The present research investigation evaluated the role of media awareness campaigns in shaping the perceptions of the general population towards COVID-19 in Rawalpindi. The general population utilized different types of media during the COVID-19 pandemic to access information (30). Our investigation shows that the number of users of social and electronic media increased during the coronavirus pandemic, a finding that is reinforced by further international surveys (31, 32). The number of users of print media decreased in the present study between t1 and t2 due to fears that coronavirus may be transmitted through the newspaper or by the vendor (33). Similar results were reported in India (34).
Pakistan is a male-dominated society; therefore, the majority of participants visiting the research investigation site were male (35) because tasks outside the home are considered to be the responsibility of males. Although gender inequalities have been reported in the education system in Pakistan (36), no significant differences in gender responses were observed in relation to general awareness or knowledge of the symptoms of COVID-19 in either the pre- or the post-response. Education plays an important role in understanding the medical awareness (37). Overall low levels of health literacy in any section of the final response may be correlated with the low proportion of postgraduate respondents, as well as the large number of respondents from rural areas (18). Information inequalities may be linked with socioeconomic disparities because almost 90% of the respondents’ families were earning less than 75,000 Pakistani rupees, which is an aspect closely linked with low health literacy levels (37, 38).
In Pakistan, many people, especially from rural areas, have the belief that there is no coronavirus and the news items related to COVID-19 are just exaggerations by the media. Nearly half of the sampled population in this investigation was from a rural background. The knowledge level was lower in the rural sample than in the urban sample. Although there was an increase in COVID-related knowledge among the rural population after the media awareness campaign in the country, still half of the rural group was ignorant of important aspects. The lack of awareness and misconceptions associated with COVID-19 in the rural populace may be interconnected with low literacy and the prevalence of conspiracy theories (39). Less educated individuals are more likely to believe in false myths. The infodemic believers need immediate behavioural modification through the involvement of social workers to minimize the spread of incorrect information. However, the conspiracy theories against COVID-19 are prevalent not only in Pakistan but also in other countries at a global level due to the novelty of the virus (40).
Overall, the respondents’ knowledge related to the coronavirus increased. However, one needs to critically judge whether the anticipated outcomes were achieved solely through effective communication strategies based on the theory of planned behaviour (41). Moderate COVID-19 awareness among the general population has been reported in India (42). The level of awareness has been assessed as high among residents of China (43). Our study provides some hints that electronic media in particular may lead to knowledge gains. However, the ubiquitous presence of COVID-19 in the media makes comparisons between low and high levels of exposure to media campaigns quite challenging. Furthermore, the diffusion of innovation theory also proposes that acceptance takes time and that individuals pass through various phases in the adoption procedure and may acclimatize to the concept during the later phases. Therefore, future investigations may discover improved health awareness among participants related to further items, whereas only limited progress was seen in our study, such as that related to the complications of COVID-19 (28).
The media as a modification agent can affect the behaviour of individuals to enable improved well-being by acclimatizing them to the precautionary measures that halt the spread of the virus. Prevention is the essence of public health (44). China successfully controlled the epidemic in Wuhan by applying the preventive approach (45). It is the responsibility of the media to provide timely and correct information for health education and the promotion of prevention strategies. The government, in collaboration with the media, has to address the challenge of information inequalities. Rich clients of the media in Pakistan have access to high-quality and timely information. But information regarding COVID-19 is also the right of people living in rural areas (18) and of vulnerable populations, such as refugees. There is a need for guidance to recognize the importance of the media for disseminating information related to the coronavirus. Health journalism requires sound knowledge related to infectious diseases. Lack of knowledge makes it challenging for journalists to describe this public health pandemic.
Our study sheds some light on the importance of the media in these times of the coronavirus pandemic. The results are valuable due to the large sample size. The response rate of 100% – without any missing items – indicates that the public is highly aware of the topic. However, the results need to be interpreted with caution because this research does not allow for a classical randomized or experimental study design. We were only able to distinguish between the frequency of use of various media channels. Because of the almost ubiquitous prevalence of information related to COVID-19, one might expect that even a relatively low frequency of media exposure provides information to the public. Furthermore, the results of the linear regression models indicate that there are more variables that were not included (known unknowns such as health status or interest in health-related issues, but also further unknown unknowns), which may further impact upon awareness and knowledge related to COVID-19.