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Study: Fox News's coronavirus coverage may have had deadly consequences

Certain Fox News hosts’ penchant for misinformation may have literally killed people, according to a recent study published by the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute for Economics. Titled “Misinformation During a Pandemic,” the working paper argues that depending on which host they watched —and how seriously that host took the threat of coronavirus early on — viewers of the network had different levels of risk for exposure and death. “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,” the paper concluded.

The paper’s authors, Leonardo Bursztyn, Aakaash Rao, Christopher Roth, and David Yanagizawa-Drott, derived their findings from their analysis of what the hosts told their viewers about the threat, and when they told them. Hannity is hosted by Sean Hannity, a major pal of President Trump who initially downplayed coronavirus, while Tucker Carlson Tonight’s eponymous host took the virus more seriously.

“Carlson warned viewers about the threat posed by the coronavirus from early February, while Hannity originally dismissed the risks associated with the virus before gradually adjusting his position starting late February,” wrote the authors. They point out that as late as Feb. 27, Hannity said on air, “And today, thankfully, zero people in the United States of America have died from the coronavirus. Zero.” Even as late as March 9, Hannity was claiming that the virus posed no serious threat, and that it was being used by Democrats to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.”

Carlson, two days prior, had told his viewers that the virus might claim a million lives in America. The authors ordered a survey of 1,000 Fox News watchers and correlated their geographic locations and preferred news shows with rates of coronavirus infection and death statistics.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Yanagizawa-Drott said that the network’s viewers were far more likely to have begun social distancing prior to March 1 “if they watched Tucker,” whereas “if they watched Hannity, they’re much more likely to change behavior after March 1.”

The paper claims, “We find that Hannity’s viewers on average changed their behavior in response to the coronavirus five days later than other Fox News viewers, while Carlson’s viewers changed behavior three days earlier than other Fox News viewers.”

The paper analyzes death and infection rates at the county level. By mid-March, the authors found a “statistically significant” margin of increase in those rates between counties with a preference for Hannity over Carlson. Two weeks later, death rates follow that same pattern. Yanagizawa-Drott told the Tribune that the researchers observed “approximately 30% more cases” — and, subsequently, the same increase in deaths — in counties that preferred Hannity.

The paper observes that Hannity changed his tune on the virus by mid-March, when he began treating the threat more seriously. “The results suggest that in mid-March, after Hannity’s shift in tone, the diverging trajectories on COVID-19 cases begin to revert,” the authors write. Conspicuously, Trump also adopted a more somber tone on coronavirus around this time, albeit briefly.

In a statement to the Tribune, a Fox News spokesperson attacked the research paper’s credibility. “The selective cherry-picked clips of Sean Hannity’s coverage used in this study are not only reckless and irresponsible, but downright factually wrong,” the spokesperson said, citing a timeline Hannity created (which itself has been the subject of extensive critique) to demonstrate that he wasn’t actually downplaying the threat. “As this timeline proves, Hannity has covered COVID-19 since the early days of the story. The ‘study’ almost completely ignores his coverage and repeated, specific warnings and concerns from Jan. 27-Feb. 26, including an early interview with Dr. Fauci in January. This is a reckless disregard for the truth.”

In fact, Hannity spent much of February continuing to downplay the crisis. And one day after the spokesperson's selected time frame, Feb. 27, Hannity began his show with a sarcastic tirade: “The apocalypse is imminent and you’re going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours. And it’s all President Trump’s fault,” he said. “Or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think."