Report: Studies Show Conservative Media Consumers’ Behavior May Be Worsening the Covid-19 Pandemic

By A.J. Katz Comment

The Washington Post data reporter Christopher Ingraham published a story this morning about the role conservative media is playing in how seriously (or not seriously) many Americans have been taking the coronavirus pandemic. According to Ingraham, multiple studies over the past couple months have found that conservative media outlets have fostered misinformation and downplayed concerns about the coronavirus—which may in turn actually have helped intensify the pandemic.

One of the studies actually shows that infection and mortality rates are higher in places where Sean Hannity in particular reaches the largest audiences.

“We are receiving an incredible number of studies and solid data showing that consuming far-right media and social media content was strongly associated with low concern about the virus at the onset of the pandemic,” said Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review chief editor Irene Pasquetto. Harvard Kennedy School published one of the studies that Ingraham has analyzed.

He also brings up a peer-reviewed study conducted by Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, examining how Americans’ media diets influenced their beliefs about Covid-19.

Their study is based of a nationwide phone survey of 1,008 Americans, and found that those respondents who got most of their information from mainstream print and broadcast outlets tended to have an accurate assessment of the severity of the pandemic and their risks of infection. However, the study found that those respondents who relied on conservative sources (the study explicitly mentions Fox News and Rush Limbaugh) were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories or falsehoods, such as the belief that taking vitamin C could prevent infection, that the Chinese government had somehow created the virus in a lab, and that the federal government exaggerated the coronavirus’ threat in order “to damage the Trump presidency.”

A working paper posted by the National Bureau of Economic Research in May (and revised in June) analyzed whether these incorrect beliefs affected real-world behavior.

According to Ingraham, the authors of this study used anonymous location data from millions of cellphones to explore how the popularity of Fox News in a given ZIP code related to social distancing practices there. “By March 15,” he writes, “they found a 10% increase in Fox News viewership within a ZIP code reduced its residents’ propensity to stay home, in compliance with public health guidelines, by about 1.3% points.

Lastly, economists from the University of Chicago, Harvard, Warwick and Zurich issued a paper in June that also found consumers of conservative media, including Fox News, as less likely to comply with public health guidelines than consumers of other media.

The paper states that there’s evidence that those behavioral differences are contributing to the spread of the coronavirus and mortality rate of Covid-19 the disease it causes, in certain areas.

It also found that Fox News viewers aren’t a monolith. In fact, Tucker Carlson Tonight viewers acted differently from Hannity viewers when it came to Covid-19. The Chicago Tribune previously noted this phenomenon on April 20, citing a study by the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute for Economics.

The economists write: “Carlson warned viewers that the coronavirus might pose a serious threat from early February, while Hannity first ignored the topic on his show and then dismissed the risks associated with the virus, claiming that it was less concerning than the common flu and insisting that Democrats were using it as a political weapon to undermine the president.”

So what did the study find? “Our results indicate that a one standard deviation increase in relative viewership of Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight is associated with approximately 32% more Covid-19 cases on March 14 and approximately 23% more Covid-19 deaths on March 28,” the authors write. They further note that by the middle of March, however, Hannity, Carlson and other Fox hosts were discussing the coronavirus outbreak in similar terms.

In a statement, provided to news outlets writing about these studies, a Fox News spokesman said: “As this timeline proves, Hannity has covered Covid-19 since the early days of the story. The ‘study’ almost completely ignores his coverage and repeated, specific warnings and concerns from January 27-February 26 including an early interview with Dr. Fauci in January. This is a reckless disregard for the truth.”

It’s worth noting that both of the last two papers mentioned have yet to be peer reviewed.

The University of North Carolina’s Zeynep Tufekci, who has written extensively on the American response to the pandemic, praised the last paper for “its rigor,” while the University of Chicago’s Anthony Fowler has written an op-ed which was critical of one of the paper’s methods, and said in an email to Ingraham that he’s “skeptical” of the findings of the other two papers.

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