After Fox News was criticized for dangerously downplaying the severity of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the network dishonestly responded by claiming that critics were cherry-picking from its purportedly laudable coverage. But six different polls tell the real story: Every one shows that Fox viewers took the virus less seriously than people who got their news from other sources.
Fox’s coronavirus coverage drew scrutiny because its misinformation endangered the health of its audience and the nation. The network’s personalities spent crucial weeks in late February and early March recklessly minimizing the risk posed by the virus, falsely claiming that it was no more deadly than the flu and that Democrats and the press were exaggerating the danger in order to attack President Donald Trump -- which likely influenced his own lax response during that period.
In recent weeks, Fox has been running a PR con in a desperate effort to preserve some shred of credibility in light of the overwhelming evidence that its coronavirus coverage was reckless and destructive. As critics pointed out that the network’s programming could kill people, Fox’s brass and talent lashed out. “The cherry picking of clips from our opinion programs is the definition of politicizing this serious threat, as is irresponsibly attacking Fox News in the middle of a pandemic that has evolved considerably over the last few weeks,” Fox communications chief Irena Briganti told New York Times media columnist Ben Smith. Sean Hannity, the network’s biggest star, has likewise threatened to sue “the media mob” for criticizing his coronavirus coverage, claiming, “We've reported without fear from the very beginning.”
But Fox’s viewers were getting a very clear message from the network’s programming -- and it wasn’t that coronavirus was a serious threat. In fact, Republican pollster Neil Newhouse reportedly warned GOP leaders in a mid-March memo that Fox’s coverage was endangering the lives of the party’s base by influencing them not to take steps to protect themselves from the virus.
Newhouse was right to worry. Six different public polls released over the past month have pointed to the same problem, with each showing that Fox viewers were more likely to believe the press had exaggerated the risks and were taking the coronavirus less seriously than people who get their news from other sources. (It’s unclear whether Fox’s coverage directly convinced those viewers to have those opinions, or if people who have those opinions are more likely to watch Fox.)
71% of respondents who had a “conservative news diet” featuring only sources like Fox said the media was giving the virus too much attention, and 57% said it was “less deadly than or as deadly as the flu,” according to a Knight Foundation/Gallup survey conducted March 17-29.
Only 38% of people who pay the most attention to Fox News said they were worried about coronavirus, compared to more than 70% of those who pay the most attention to CNN or MSNBC, according to a YouGov/The Economist poll conducted March 15-17. The same poll found that only 30% of Fox viewers said the virus would cause a recession, again compared to more than 70% of viewers of the other two cable news networks.
According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted March 10-16, 79% of respondents who primarily rely on Fox News say the media has exaggerated the risk of the pandemic, substantially more than viewers of the other two cable news networks.
Of the 12% of respondents who said they were “not concerned at all” about coronavirus, 59% said they watched Fox the most of the three cable news channels, according to a CivicScience poll released March 21.
Republicans who reported watching Fox programming over the previous 24 hours were much more likely to say the media is exaggerating the threat of coronavirus (more than 60%) and much less likely to say they had stayed home (less than 10%) than Republicans who did not report watching Fox (slightly more than 40% and 30%, respectively), according to a Survey 160/Gradient Metrics survey conducted March 13-16.
72% of respondents who watch Fox News said the media and Democrats had overstated the threat of coronavirus to damage Trump’s presidency, according to an Ipsos poll conducted March 26-27. The same survey found that while 61% of total respondents correctly said the coronavirus is more deadly than the flu, only 48% of Fox viewers said so.
Fox is still putting its viewers in danger.
While the network recalibrated its approach in mid-March after Trump himself showed signs he was taking the virus more seriously, its prime-time hosts are now once again arguing that the danger has been exaggerated and calling for an end to the social distancing steps that public health experts say have prevented a massive death toll.
As GOP pollster Newhouse pointed out in his memo, “Denial is not likely to be a successful strategy for survival.”