An April study about the effects of coronavirus media coverage analyzed two popular Fox News cable programs — and claims how one host talked about the threat of the coronavirus resulted in greater numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Researchers at the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at University of Chicago took a deep dive into those implications in the working paper “Misinformation During a Pandemic,” in which they examined the audience that watched Hannity versus Tucker Carlson Tonight.
Right-wing Fox News is the most watched cable network in the U.S., and half of its audience is over the age of 65. Many of its television shows and personalities downplayed the threat of the novel coronavirus and thus received harsh criticism for ignoring a public health crisis.
The economists examined scripts from shows and studied how differential exposure to the two shows affected behavior and health outcomes. Conservative hosts Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson support President Donald Trump, and they are at the helm of the two, most-widely viewed cable news shows in the U.S. But they took different broadcasting paths when the coronavirus first hit the U.S.
The paper notes that Carlson was an outlier on Fox and, as early as Jan. 28, spent a chunk of his show discussing the dangers of a global pandemic. He continued to warn of deadly consequences.
On Feb. 25, according to the paper, Carlson warned viewers of the potential impact the outbreak could have in the U.S. “Currently, the coronavirus appears to kill about 2% of the people who have it. So let's be generous for a moment and imagine that asymptomatic carriers are not detected and the real death rate is only say half a percent — that would be one quarter of the current estimates. Even under that scenario, there would still be 27 million deaths from coronavirus globally. In this country, more than a million would die,” Carlson said.
Meanwhile, Hannity downplayed coronavirus as just the flu and emphasized that Democrats were politicizing the virus to undermine Trump.
“And today, thankfully, zero people in the United States of America have died from the coronavirus. Zero. Now, let's put this in perspective. In 2017, 61,000 people in this country died from influenza, the flu. Common flu. Around 100 people die every single day from car wrecks,” the paper quotes Hannity from his show on Feb. 27.
By mid-March the host changed his posture and began to broadcast CDC guidelines, according to the paper. “If you feel sick, stay at home. If your kids feel sick, don't send them to school or day care. If someone in your household has tested positive for coronavirus, please self-quarantine your entire household. Keep them at home,” Hannity told his viewers.
To examine the relationship between viewership of Hannity and Tucker Carlson Tonight and their changes in behavior in response to the coronavirus — washing hands more often, practicing social distancing and cancelling travel plans — the authors surveyed 1,045 Fox News viewers aged 55 or older in early April 2020.
The paper says viewership of Hannity relative to Carlson is associated with approximately 30% more COVID-19 cases by March 14, and 21% more COVID-19 deaths by March 28.
“In line with the differences in content, we find that Hannity’s viewers on average changed their behavior in response to the coronavirus five days later than other Fox News viewers, while Carlson’s viewers changed behavior three days earlier than other Fox News viewers,” the authors wrote.
The paper says it is possible that these effects will fade over time. And it acknowledges that the findings cannot yet speak to long-term effects. However, it shows how misinformation in the early stages of a pandemic can have important consequences for how a disease ultimately affects the population.
However, Fox News strongly opposed the study’s characterization of Hannity’s coverage of the pandemic.
“As this timeline proves, Hannity has covered Covid-19 since the early days of the story,” a Fox News spokesperson said in an email to WBEZ. “The ‘study’ almost completely ignores his coverage and repeated, specific warnings and concerns from January 27-February 26 including an early interview with [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony] Fauci in January. This is a reckless disregard for the truth.”