Washington Post: Conservative media may have intensified the pandemic

The Post published an analysis of three recent studies which purport to connect conservative media to an intensification of the pandemic. A lot of that intensification is assumed as we’ll see. The first of the three was peer-reviewed and was based on a poll of 1,000 people.

Administering a nationally representative phone survey with 1,008 respondents, they found that people who got most of their information from mainstream print and broadcast outlets tended to have an accurate assessment of the severity of the pandemic and their risks of infection. But those who relied on conservative sources, such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories or unfounded rumors, such as the belief that taking vitamin C could prevent infection, that the Chinese government had created the virus, and that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exaggerated the pandemic’s threat “to damage the Trump presidency.”

The second study is described as a “working paper” meaning this is still pre-publication. It found an impact on travel based on Fox News viewership:

We find strong evidence of a Fox New viewership effect on several measures of the incremental propensity to stay at home during the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis in the US, relative to January 2020 immediately before the outbreak. While comparable in magnitude to the voting context,
the persuasive effect of Fox Viewership on social distancing compliance is quite large, especially given that it defies the expert recommendations from leaders of the US and global health communities. Interestingly, we fail to find conclusive effects of CNN viewership on social distancing
compliance.

But there’s a catch to this, actually two. The first is that this effect only seems to show up for the first two weeks of March:

As anticipated, we find extremely small and statistically insignificant viewership effects throughout February, prior to the first emergency declaration. Only after March 1st, the day after the first emergency declaration in the US as explained above, do the IV estimates become systematically negative and statistically significant. The magnitudes increase between March 1st and March 13th, after which the point estimates appear to stabilize.

Why does this matter? Because nothing beyond a few high-profile events like Comic-Con was shut down in the first two weeks of March. As I’ve written many times, the first counties to issue a stay-at-home order happened on March 16th in northern California. So the study is suggesting that Fox News watchers were less likely to stay at home at a time when no one had been ordered to stay at home. The second catch is that the researchers have no evidence of how this relates to the number of infections or deaths:

…we do not attempt to attribute the Fox News effects to health outcomes, namely cases and deaths, for several reasons. First, to the best of our knowledge, COVID-19-related cases and deaths are tracked at the more aggregate county level and not at the zipcode level. Second, experts still disagree about the accuracy and reliability of current data which limits the interpretabilty of any association we might find with our behavioral outcomes…

The third study is another “working paper” meaning it hasn’t been published yet. This one is more interesting because it notes that there were actually different messages coming from the hosts at Fox News in the early days of the virus. Sean Hannity was downplaying the seriousness of the virus but Tucker Carlson was doing the opposite. In fact, Carlson was telling people to use masks when the CDC was saying it was unnecessary. Here’s a graph based on ratings given to the various programs:

And here’s what the Post says about the study’s conclusions:

They found that Hannity viewership was associated with changing pandemic-related behaviors (like hand-washing and canceling travel plans) four days later than other Fox News viewers, while Carlson viewership was associated with changing behaviors three days earlier.

Given the importance of individual behavior in curbing the spread of the coronavirus, it stands to reason that places where people were slower to take preventive steps might see more severe outbreaks. That’s exactly what the final step of their analysis shows.

Could more hand-washing in February have helped? Probably but the fact remains that it was business as usual for almost everyone at that time. In early March movie theaters were still open and so was Broadway and the NBA. Blaming Fox News for the fact that no elected official anywhere in the country had shut down anything seems like a stretch.

What’s really frustrating about this entire effort to blame the seriousness of the pandemic on Fox News is that by far the worst outbreak in the country, worse than almost everywhere in the world, was in New York City. Were the residents of NYC hanging on every word from Sean Hannity. I’m sure some were but not most.

It’s far more likely they were listening to Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo who in early March were still telling people to go about business as usual and arguing over whether or not to shutter schools. The impact of leaving subways open 24/7 and sending sick people back to nursing homes almost certainly had a far greater impact on the worst outbreak in the U.S. than anything on Fox News. I look forward to the Post’s coverage of studies about those topics.