On April 22, Vox reported on a working paper from the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute for Economics which shows “statistical evidence” that areas with higher viewership of Fox News host Sean Hannity's program, relative to fellow prime-time host Tucker Carlson's show, correlated with “higher local rates of infection and death” due to COVID-19.
According to the article, the study authors “calculate that Fox viewers who watched Hannity rather than Carlson were less likely to adhere to social distancing rules, and that areas where more people watched Hannity relative to Carlson had higher local rates of infection and death.”
The paper looks at Hannity and Tucker Carlson Tonight programming in February and early March. And though Fox figures “abruptly pivoted” on the coronavirus in mid-March, Hannity (and others) strayed back into reckless coverage by pushing hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 -- a push which has significantly decreased across the network as more data suggest its use can be dangerous.
Lest anyone give Carlson too much credit for being more responsible than Hannity, who once called COVID-19 concerns a “hoax,” Vox ominously noted that Carlson has “inveighed against social distancing in April and praised anti-distancing protestors.”
As Vox noted, the working paper “hasn’t been peer reviewed or accepted for publication at a journal” and we should therefore be “especially cautious” in drawing wide-reaching conclusions. But the paper is “consistent with a wide body of research finding that media consumption in general, and Fox News viewership in particular, can have a pretty powerful effect on individual behavior.”
In fact, at least seven different polls have highlighted the extent to which Fox News has misinformed its viewers about the novel coronavirus. Forty-five percent of frequent Fox viewers believe the reported death toll is inflated, and people who watch Fox News are more likely to claim that the media is exaggerating the threat of COVID-19. According to Vox, viewers who tuned into Hannity downplaying coronavirus through February and part of March “were less likely to adhere to social distancing rules” and changed their behavior nearly a week later than viewers of Carlson’s show.
From the Vox article:
Using both a poll of Fox News viewers over age 55 and publicly available data on television-watching patterns, they calculate that Fox viewers who watched Hannity rather than Carlson were less likely to adhere to social distancing rules, and that areas where more people watched Hannity relative to Carlson had higher local rates of infection and death.
“Greater exposure to Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight leads to a greater number of COVID-19 cases and deaths,” they write. “A one-standard deviation increase in relative viewership of Hannity relative to Carlson is associated with approximately 30 percent more COVID-19 cases on March 14, and 21 percent more COVID-19 deaths on March 28.”
This is a working paper; it hasn’t been peer reviewed or accepted for publication at a journal. However, it’s consistent with a wide body of research finding that media consumption in general, and Fox News viewership in particular, can have a pretty powerful effect on individual behavior.
“Viewers of Hannity changed their behavior five days later than viewers of other shows,” they write. “Viewers of Tucker Carlson Tonight changed their behavior three days earlier than viewers of other shows.”
The final part of the paper uses two different regression models to show that, in fact, there is good reason to believe that Hannity viewership did increase coronavirus deaths relative to Carlson viewership.
In the first model, they compare data on the two shows’ ratings in different areas to county-level data on coronavirus infections and deaths. Specifically, they compare Hannity viewership to coronavirus rates two weeks later — the time it would take for the virus to start presenting in virtually all infected, symptomatic individuals.
After controlling for a number of confounding variables, ranging from overall television viewership rates to demographic factors like race, they find a clear relationship: Areas with greater Hannity viewership had more cases and more deaths. This relationship weakened after Hannity changes his show’s tune in mid-March, suggesting that it is in fact the programming driving the changes.