Fresh, new study on coronavirus television news coverage

Eric Singer

“Misinformation During a Pandemic” is a riveting study for public information officers and anyone who wants to read a new wrinkle on how television news coverage impacts viewer behaviors and their health outcomes. This coronavirus-related research paper was co-authored by University of Chicago Economics Professor Leonardo Bursztyn and Harvard University Department of Economics Ph.D. student Aakaash Rao, among others. I spoke with Rao on the PAST Fusion Cell Newsline about what he learned: “As economists, we have been interested in how the media can affect health outcomes, and pandemics are a particularly interesting setting. It’s because the consequences of information can really be amplified. If I don’t think the coronavirus is a threat and I don’t wash my hands, I don’t wear a face mask, I don’t practice social distancing. It’s not only hurting me, but it’s also hurting everyone around me. We know that even a small group of people not taking these precautionary measures can have really significant effects on how the population as a whole deals with the coronavirus.”

Rao and his team homed in on one network, Fox News. He said there were a number of reasons to pick this network. Rao pointed to what he called the disproportionately older viewership, with a median viewer age of around 65 years old, which he singled out as the population most at risk from coronavirus, and that Fox is the most viewed cable news network in the United States. But most importantly: “There are really striking variations in how news anchors Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, who are the most popular news anchors in the United States, covered the coronavirus story. These two anchors told two different stories of how serious the coronavirus was and how much it was a threat to the country.” According to Rao, Carlson said it was a serious threat in late January, while early on Hannity downplayed its severity until he shifted his tone in mid-March: “From our perspective as researchers, this sets up a great opportunity to compare these two populations of similar viewers, and look at how differing perspectives from these two shows may have influenced downstream health outcomes.”

Rao made it very clear that the research does not claim that Fox was the only network to understate the severity of the pandemic, because he believes the vast majority of new sources across the ideological spectrum were claiming at least into February that the coronavirus was not going to be a serious threat: “The fact that there was this variation in how the Fox News anchors presented the coronavirus lets us zoom in and study the effects of information on outcomes.” I asked Rao what surprised the researchers most: “Based on the previous work in economics, we expected that information can affect behavior. What was more surprising was that even over such a short period of time – this was just a period of one to two months – this information had really striking effects. Not only on the viewers, but also on the counties in which they resided. It was unclear initially, since there was a lot of contrasting information from online news and from all sorts of different radio sources, that the information on these television shows would have these effects, and that they would show up on the county level.”

Click on “Misinformation During a Pandemic” to read the entire study that was co-authored by University of Chicago Economics Professor Leonardo Bursztyn and Harvard University Department of Economics Ph.D. student Aakaash Rao, among others. Thanks for reading this story and don’t forget to click on the Mp3 link below to hear my entire interview with Aakaash Rao.

Flash Briefing – May 13, 2020