Studies Link Viewership of Fox News to Reduced Pandemic Precaution

Fox News headquarters on 6th Avenue in New Yor
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Four academic papers show a correspondence between watching the network and employing less stringent COVID-19 safety measures, a claim Fox calls "cherry-picking."

Fox News’ coronavirus coverage is increasingly the focus of academic research which has concluded the network contributed to an adverse public health situation during the pandemic. All of the studies are still working papers, meaning none have yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Still, the groups’ individual work — developed at the outset without knowledge of each other — is in itself “mutually affirming,” in the words of Elliott Ash, the chair of law, economics and data science at ETH Zurich and member of one of the research coteries.

The first paper, which became public in April, examined how Fox’s two most popular shows, Hannity and Tucker Carlson Tonight, had diverged in their coverage of COVID-19 early on. Tucker Carlson’s approach was more urgent than that of Sean Hannity — with clear results on viewers. “Misinformation During a Pandemic,” published by the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute for Economics, determined that “greater exposure to Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight increased the number of total cases and deaths in the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic.”

The three subsequent studies — which use Fox’s relative cable channel position across local markets to gauge the effect of the network on consumer behavior — have since arrived at a similar conclusion: Fox’s editorial coverage persuaded its viewership away from the necessity of physical distancing, which public health authorities believe would’ve helped stem the spread of the pandemic. 

While some cable news viewers, especially with partisan leanings, seek out certain media outlets, others will watch whichever channel they come upon first, typically the one positioned lowest when clicking up from 2 on a U.S. television set. (Media companies are cognizant of this, which is why a prime position as far down the dial as possible is a coveted asset.) “We are mainly estimating the effect on this group: the ‘compliers,’” explains Maxim Ananyev, a co-author of one of the studies and a fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research.

The three independent research contingents part ways, however, on whether Fox’s messaging on social distancing resulted in excess illness and death among its audience. One, citing a desire to remain in what they perceive to be their academic lane, declined to attempt such measurement: “None of us are trained as epidemiologists,” notes Columbia Business School professor Andrey Simonov, a specialist in quantitative marketing, of his cohort. “We are economists and political scientists.”

The others were split on whether the network’s activity may have contributed to the demise of a portion of its audience: one found no proof, the other evidence that Fox’s role was “consequential for mortality.”

The scholars behind the Hannity-Carlson study went furthest. Their modeling analysis found that, early in the pandemic, "greater exposure to Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight is associated with a greater number of COVID-19 cases and deaths."

After Hannity’s views merged with Carlson’s, the effect on cases plateaued and declined, the study claims. The network responded to all four studies with a statement: “Fox News has been covering the threat of COVID-19 since mid-January and was among the first networks to spotlight both the severity of the virus and to warn the American public that cases would skyrocket into the hundred thousand range. These cherry-picking studies blatantly ignore key moments of our pandemic coverage and are nothing more than a transparent PR stunt by organizations seeking media attention.”

Fox also sought to counter the academics’ work in an accompanying facts sheet. It pointed to its dedicated coronavirus town halls, including with President Trump, as well as PSAs about the virus and new hires providing on-air medical expertise. In addition, the network provided a chronological breakdown of its coverage, highlighting how anchors Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo had first raised concerns about COVID-19 in the early weeks of 2020, before it was a common discussion topic in the U.S., and a Feb. 27 moment on Hannity during which the host proclaimed: “Make no mistake. Coronavirus, it is dangerous.”

As for the studies themselves, Fox directed attention to a Bloomberg Opinion column by University of Chicago public policy professor Anthony Fowler, who questioned whether COVID-19 social science research in general is being recklessly fast-tracked, citing in particular the Hannity-Carlson paper, which he ventured “was likely written in just a few days,” as “the kind of study that might make one skeptical in normal times” before critiquing its methodology. “Maybe conservative commentators like Sean Hannity have exacerbated the spread of Covid-19,” he wrote, “but it’s dangerous for social scientists to publicize these kinds of results before they have been carefully vetted.”

The studies, currently undergoing revisions, are part of the burgeoning field of media economics, which scrutinizes television coverage’s impact on social behaviors. (In 2014, researchers found that MTV’s 16 and Pregnant led to fewer teen births.) Aakaash Rao at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard, one of the authors of the Hannity-Carlson inquiry, acknowledges a short turnaround time — “we wrote our first draft over the course of weeks, while a typical completed paper might take months or years” — but is confident in the group’s approach. “We think the best way to ensure that our results are correct is to release the paper to the scientific community and solicit feedback from colleagues, as we’ve done,” he says.

Fox disclosed on Oct. 26 that multiple employees at its Manhattan headquarters had tested positive for COVID-19 — shortly after a New York Times report that the network president as well as top on-air talent, including Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum and Dana Perino, had been advised to quarantine after being exposed to someone on a charter flight who later tested positive for the virus.

Some of the social scientists are now employing similar methods to look into Fox’s influence on climate change skepticism. However, across the research groups, right now they’re most attentive to how the network will cover the next phase of the pandemic — immunization. “Going forward, media will be persuasive,” says Simonov. “We know it will be important in how people will comply with vaccination. If there’s very different messaging and polarization, it’s reasonable to expect similar effects: there will be different levels of compliance as well.”

The Studies:

Misinformation During a Pandemic,” by Leonardo Bursztyn, Aakaash Rao, Christopher Roth, and David Yanagizawa-Drott.

The Persuasive Effect of Fox News: Non-Compliance with Social Distancing During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” by Andrey Simonov, Szymon Sacher, Jean-Pierre Dubé, and Shirsho Biswas.

The Effect of Fox News on Health Behavior during COVID-19,” by Elliott Ash, Sergio Galletta, Dominik Hangartner, Yotam Margalit and Matteo Pinna.

The Safest Time to Fly: Pandemic Response in the Era of Fox News,” by Maxim Ananyev, Michael Poyker, and Yuan Tian.