Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute for Economics recently released a working paper that found a close relationship between exposure to different news sources and COVID-19 related deaths among viewers. The research, conducted in part by University economics professor Leonardo Bursztyn, highlights the growing relationship between media consumption and behavior during the COVID-19 crisis, and points to a startling new reality— that, for some, the choice of which news program to watch could be a matter of life and death.
In the paper, titled “Misinformation During a Pandemic,” the researchers compared two popular shows that air on the same network: Tucker Carlson Tonight with Tucker Carlson and Hannity with Sean Hannity, both on Fox News. The researchers point out stark differences in the early coverage of COVID-19 between the two anchors, citing excerpts of show transcripts and surveys of audience perception to show that Hannity minimized the virus’s severity.
“While Hannity discussed the coronavirus as frequently as Carlson during early March, he downplayed its seriousness and accused Democrats of using it as a partisan tool to undermine the administration,” the researchers wrote.
Their findings indicate that COVID-19 deaths were significantly higher in the weeks that followed in regions where Hannity was more popular.
“A one-standard deviation greater viewership of Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight is associated with 21 percent more deaths on March 28, 33 percent more deaths on April 4, and 28 percent more deaths on April 11,” the researchers wrote.
Fox News was quick to respond.
“The selective cherry-picked clips of Sean Hannity’s coverage used in this study are not only reckless and irresponsible, but downright factually wrong,” a spokesperson 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.”
The researchers, however, were explicit in their impartiality.
“We don’t see our paper as making a partisan claim: we’re examining effects within Fox News viewers, not comparing e.g. Fox News viewers to CNN viewers,” Aakaash Rao, co-author and a member of the University’s Class of 2019, wrote in a comment to The Maroon. “We’re not making any general claims about one partisan group or the effects of one network.”
Rao also emphasized that this is a working paper and that its findings should not yet be taken at face value.
“We don’t want anyone to over-interpret our findings before our paper has been vetted,” Rao wrote.
While the paper has not yet been peer-reviewed, the authors’ findings are consistent with existing research on the profound impact of media on viewer behavior; the researchers cite a 2019 paper from Columbia Business School that found that judges who watch conservative news outlets give harsher sentences, and a paper from 2015 in the American Economic Review found that MTV’s 16 and Pregnant lead to a reduction in teen births, among others.
Anecdotal evidence from the president’s COVID-19 response also aligns with the researchers’ findings. WNBC reported that calls to NYC’s Poison Control doubled after President Trump’s televised remarks that disinfectants may be a viable treatment for the coronavirus.
The researchers want their work to draw attention to the power of information—and misinformation—on public health, especially during the current global pandemic.
“I think our paper highlights the importance of information on eventual health outcomes and demonstrates that misinformation can have significant consequences,” Rao wrote. “If I'm misinformed about the extent of the threat and I don’t think it’s necessary to wash my hands more often, practice social distancing, wear a mask, etc., then I'm harming not only myself, but also those around me—so that any direct effects of misinformation are multiplied.”
Sean Hannity’s website now has the subtitle “#flattenthecurve.”
The working paper “Misinformation During a Pandemic” can be found here.
Correction on April 28, 2020, 12:28 p.m. CDT:
Information regarding the percent increase in deaths was incorrectly drawn from an exploratory exercise rather than the actual results reported in the working paper.