Media reports have covered at length the social and political divisions in the United States highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Images of people protesting shelter-in-place orders, at times armed and storming government buildings, clash with those of mask-wearing social-distancing adherents.

But how much of a role does media itself play in whether people will follow or reject social-distancing guidelines? Research by Columbia’s Andrey Simonov, Columbia PhD candidate Szymon Sacher, Chicago Booth’s Jean-Pierre Dubé, and Booth PhD candidate Shirsho Biswas argues that viewing the conservative-leaning Fox News channel caused people to disregard social-distancing measures and reject expert health guidance.

In early April, the Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics filed a class-action lawsuit against Fox News accusing the network of broadcasting misleading information about COVID-19 in February and March, including downplaying its seriousness. Although that suit has since been dismissed, the researchers aimed to measure how the persuasive effect of such broadcasts might have discouraged cooperation with expert recommendations.

The researchers used the Nielsen Local TV View to measure viewership patterns across US cable markets, with a focus on the two most-watched cable news channels, Fox News and CNN. In conjunction, they used location data from millions of US cellphones to track behavior, taking into account that stay-at-home policies allow for essential travel. The researchers analyzed data from January 1 to April 24.

The study also incorporated Nielsen’s FOCUS data, which tracks the lineup of channels across cable markets. Recognizing that a correlation between viewership and social distancing doesn’t imply a Fox News effect per se, the researchers exploit the fact that channel positions are assigned randomly across cable systems. They measure the causal effect of Fox News viewership by using only the incremental viewership due to channel positions.

The real detriment to society, says Dubé, may be an increased distrust of experts across the board.

Tracking viewership and channel position data across 30,517 zip codes from 210 designated market areas, they find that a 10 percent increase in Fox News viewership within a zip code reduced the tendency to stay home by 1.2 percentage points, compared with the average before the pandemic. Between March 1 and March 13, in particular, the researchers note an increase in this behavior that was in direct contrast to the recommended guidelines from health experts.

Overall, they find the persuasion rate of Fox News viewing on noncompliance with stay-at-home guidelines to be around 33 percent to 50 percent across various social-distancing metrics. Their measurements on the effect of CNN on social-distancing behavior were statistically insignificant.

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The researchers note that the study did not allow them to measure exactly how Fox News might have affected viewer behavior. Viewers may have been responding to longer-term exposure to Fox News and a more general entrenched bias against governments and institutions that would have caused them to defy official guidelines. It’s also possible the measured behaviors reflect public declarations from Republican politicians downplaying the importance of social distancing, rather than statements made by Fox News anchors, the researchers write.

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Still, says Dubé, a key takeaway from the research is that “such a large fraction of society is willing to listen to Fox News rather than the experts.” Even in the unlikely event that the Fox News anchors are proven correct in this public-health crisis, he says, “[viewers] still should not be turning to news anchors, instead of epidemiologists and infectious disease researchers, for expert advice during a public health crisis.”

This phenomenon could extend beyond the COVID-19 crisis. The real detriment to society, says Dubé, may be an increased distrust of experts across the board.

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