Watching Fox News host Sean Hannity has been linked to an increased risk of coronavirus, according to a new study from the University of Chicago.
Hannity spent a good part of March downplaying the risks of coronavirus on his program, and researchers wanted to know if that misinformation actually made viewers more likely to catch the virus. It turns out that it did.
The researchers wanted to control for a number of factors, including age and political slant, so they compared people who watched Hannity on Fox News to people who watched Tucker Carlson’s show. Carlson is also a far-right talking head on Fox, but he took coronavirus seriously since February.
Hannity, on the other hand, said on March 9 that media outlets wanted to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax,” that is, coronavirus. He said that the flu is “much more dangerous” than coronavirus. Fox executives are reportedly preparing for lawsuits because of his and other Fox hosts’ coverage of the pandemic.
So while Carlson’s and Hannity’s audiences are similar in a lot of ways, one audience was getting better information than the other.
And the researchers at the University of Chicago found that that made a big difference. Using survey data to isolate areas where Carlson is more popular and areas where Hannity has a bigger audience, they found that “greater viewership of Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight is strongly associated with a greater number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the early stages of the pandemic,” mainly because Carlson’s viewers adjusted their behavior earlier.
And it wasn’t just the spread of the virus. Watching Hannity was linked to more death.
“These estimates also show that greater exposure to Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight is associated with a greater number of county-level cases and deaths,” the researchers wrote.
The paper is still being worked on and has not been through formal peer-review, a long and involved process, but other researchers in the field are impressed with the accuracy of the work.
“They took pains to control for many alternative explanations and this really looks like a causal effect of misinformation to deaths,” tweeted University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufecki.
Also, please note: information and misinformation changes behavior. Varying degrees but it does. Misinformation on Facebook changes behavior just like misinformation on TV. Too often people deny this because they can hide behind lack of good ways to measure it. Here, we have one.
— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) April 20, 2020
A Fox News spokesperson disputed the findings of the study, saying that the idea that Hannity didn’t take coronavirus seriously is “downright factually wrong.”
“The ‘study’ almost completely ignores his coverage and repeated, specific warnings and concerns from January 27 to February 26 including an early interview with Dr. Fauci in January,” the spokesperson told Vox.