Commentary

Opinion Done Wrong: Researchers Find Fox News Hurts Stay-At-Home Compliance



While a variety of surveys and tracking studies have shown that the kind of people prone to watch Fox News Channel’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic believe the mainstream media have exaggerated its risks and that local governments’ restrictions are a hoax and violation of their rights, new academic research suggests it also is affecting their behavior in an unhealthy way.

The research, authored by Columbia University and University of Chicago professors and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found a significant correlation between Fox News viewing and “non-compliance with social distancing orders.”

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Specifically, it shows that each 1% increase in Fox News’ is viewing in a given ZIP code “reduces the propensity to state at home by 8.9%.”

“We show that exposure to Fox News has led to substantially lower compliance with social distancing regulations,” says Andrey Simonov, an assistant professor at the Columbia Business School, noting: "Our team was interested in examining the broader consequences of cable viewership and the role that media outlets like Fox play in the enforcement of public health recommendations. SafeGraph’s COVID-19 Consortium data allowed us to answer this question by providing a daily panel of census-block-level aggregate movements data, enabling our team to measure stay-at-home rates across the country.” 

Fox News Channel continues to dominate cable news ratings, and the entire sector has been benefitting from a surge in viewing from Americans glued for news about the pandemic.

It has also been the subject of a suit by a public interest group claiming it has been perpetuating disinformation and “fake news” about the COVID-19 pandemic.

While it’s unlikely that suit will go to court, the new research demonstrates an explicit cause and effect between Fox News’ coverage and potentially reckless behavior.


6 comments about "Opinion Done Wrong: Researchers Find Fox News Hurts Stay-At-Home Compliance".
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  1. Jay Goldstein from Independent, May 27, 2020 at 11:03 a.m.

    Good article Joe, now I will sit back and watch the "whataboutism" responses. 

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 27, 2020 at 1:30 p.m.

    Joe, a question. Did the study claim that a 1% increase in average minute viewership of Fox News ---which would be a very small number of eyeballs----caused an 8.9% propensity to not stay at home---or was this a referrence to an absolute 1% of the population joining  Fox for "news" coverage per minute---which would represent a huge increase---more than doubling its viewership.If the former is the case, I find it difficult to accept that such an impact could be generated. If it's the latter--an absolute 1% of the population added to the normal viewing level, that makes more sense.

  3. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, May 27, 2020 at 1:46 p.m.

    @Ed Papazian: You can review the methodology and findings yourself and weigh in on its veracity if you want. It's downloadable from the article or via this link:

    https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.mediapost.com/uploads/FoxNewsPaper.pdf

  4. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics, May 27, 2020 at 4:23 p.m.

    Warning. Correlation is not causation. 

  5. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 27, 2020 at 6:57 p.m.

    Jack, take a look at the actual writeup---it's tedious but very revealing. I think that you will be surprised---especially about the audience assumptions and what data was used.

  6. Mike Donatello from N/A, May 28, 2020 at 1:39 p.m.

    I just skimmed the paper. The idea that increased Fox News consumption leads directly to reduced propensity to remain at home is a bit simplistic. Did I miss the inclusion of components in the model to test whether both viewership and “social distancing compliance" are outcomes of latent factors such as distrust of government, belief that other news outlets are more likely to feature pro-government or politically objectionable narratives, etc.? (I don’t believe so.) Attitudes like those could account for both viewership and isolation behavior as well as a positive relationship between viewing and a behavioral outcome, whether the latter is modeled as concurrent or lagged. Although the authors caution that “our data do not permit us to test the exact mechanism through which Fox News viewership persuades individuals against complying with social distancing” (p. 25), the several alternative mechanisms proffered don’t include the one I mentioned.

     

    Using aggregate data to explain an individual-level process is troublesome, and failing to include potentially important mediators makes the task more difficult. In this case, the claim that viewership drives behavior is a wobbly one.

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