“Health messaging, despite being one of the few effective ways to slow down the spread of the virus in the absence of a vaccine, is doomed to fail if the media prioritize political interests over population health,” said study authors Erfei Zhao and Qiao Wu, who are both PhD students at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California.
Among the nearly 5,000 adults who participated in an online survey every two weeks from March to June, around 29% said they trusted CNN more than Fox; about half (52%) expressed no preference, and one in five (20%) said they trusted Fox more than CNN.
Devotees of Fox News consistently practiced more risky behaviors — such as going out to a bar or club, attending gatherings of more than 10 people or visiting others in their homes — than CNN viewers, the study found.
In addition, the study found Fox News enthusiasts consistently practiced fewer preventative measures — such as wearing a mask, sanitizing hands, avoiding restaurants and canceling social plans — than CNN fans.
“The most we can take away from the study is that there is a correlation between news preference (at the beginning of the study) and frequency of infection-mitigating behaviors — a relationship that strengthens over time,” said Christopher Federico, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Political Psychology, in an email.
“This ‘suggests’ that there is something about the different news sources that influences behavior, but we cannot conclude that for sure given the methodology,” said Federico, who was not involved in the study.
The study’s authors noted that the research was “observational, and as such, can’t establish cause.”
“That said, there is some evidence from other studies — using better methodologies — that exposure to Fox does have a causal effect on certain behaviors (e.g., voting),” Federico said.
Trust in news seems to affect behavior
The new study analyzed data from the Understanding America Study, an ongoing longitudinal national online survey of approximately 9,000 US adults. Every two weeks from March 10 to June 9, participants were asked questions about how they had protected themselves from Covid-19 over the last seven days, among other things.
The final analysis looked at data from 4,863 respondents who completed questionnaires every two weeks without fail.
CNN viewers were most likely to follow protective guidelines issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and others, followed by those who had no preference in their media choice.
Viewers who trusted CNN for their news on Covid-19 engaged in an average of 3.85 preventative behaviors during the study period, while people who trusted Fox News took an average of 3.41 safety precautions.
Older Americans over age 65, which means they’re in a higher risk group if they contract the virus, were also more likely to use protective measures, as were women, the more educated and those of non-Hispanic Asian ethnic backgrounds, according to the study.
People with a job, but unable to work from home, were least likely to follow preventative behaviors, the study found.
Overall, Fox viewers engaged in an average of 1.25 risky behaviors during the study period, while CNN viewers participated in 0.94 of such risky behaviors such as going to other people’s homes and attending larger gatherings.
While that might appear to be a small number by itself, adding risky behavior to a lack of preventative behaviors increases overall risk significantly, said the study authors.
In addition, risky behavior in Fox News fans increased with the passage of time, the study found, with the highest levels occurring in late May and June.
That’s revealing, said CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter.
“This new study suggests that when Fox’s biggest stars listened to public health experts and echoed their educational information, back in March and April, Fox viewers listened and acted accordingly,” Stelter said.
“When those same stars changed their tone and Fox ‘switched back to a more politically driven narrative’ in May, viewers also heard that loud and clear — and relaxed their safety precautions.”
Flu vs Covid-19
Early in the pandemic, Fox host Sean Hannity consistently compared Covid-19 fatality numbers with those of the seasonal flu, concluding that the novel coronavirus is less lethal than influenza.
“Listen, even friends of mine saying is it really that bad?” Hannity asked Fox medical contributor Dr. Marc Siegel on March 6.
“This virus should be compared to the flu, because at worst, at worst, worst case scenario it could be the flu,” Siegel replied.
“This was shockingly irresponsible stuff — and Fox executives knew it, because by the beginning of March, they were taking precautions that belied Siegel’s just-the-flu statement,” Stelter wrote in his new book “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.”
“The network canceled a big event for hundreds of advertisers, instituted deep cleanings of the office and began to put a work-from-home plan in place. Yet Fox’s stars kept sending mixed messages to millions of viewers,” he wrote.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, corrected that assumption in early March during an on-air interview with Hannity just four days after Siegel’s flu comparison.
“To make sure your viewers get an accurate idea about what goes on, you mentioned seasonal flu,” Fauci said to Hannity.
“The mortality for seasonal flu is 0.1. The mortality for this is about 2, 2.5%. It’s probably lower than that, it’s probably closer to 1. But even if it’s 1 (percent) it’s ten times more lethal than the seasonal flu,” Fauci said.
The impact of more media sources
Additional research shows an association between use of only one media source and belief structure about the pandemic.
A new report from Pew Research center, published Wednesday, found 90% of Republicans who only listened to Fox News or talk radio as major sources of political news say the country has controlled the outbreak as well as it could.
But when those same Republican-leaning viewers relied on at least one of other major news providers, only 46% said the US controlled the outbreak as well as it could.
The surveys showed “a clear connection between news diet within the GOP and views on the pandemic,” the authors said.
“Many millions of viewers take their cues from Fox. That’s why it was so dangerous when commentators and hosts pooh-poohed the severity of the pandemic and treated it more like a political spat than a medical emergency,” Stelter said.
“Fox’s coverage misinformed President Trump and millions of other people. And this isn’t just a past-tense story — it is still happening today.”
It’s time for the media to take responsibility for their behavior, said the USC study authors.
“Not only do politically driven narratives lead to biased health messaging, but also people may actively filter out the information that does not match their political leanings,” they added.
“Media should reduce their partisan stance on health information so that they do not cloud the public’s judgment during a health crisis.”