By Leonardo Bursztyn, Aakaash Rao, Christopher P. Roth, David H. Yanagizawa-Drott
National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2020
We study the effects of COVID-19 coverage early in the pandemic by the two most widely-viewed cable news shows in the United States – Hannity and Tucker Carlson Tonight, both on Fox News – on downstream health outcomes. We first document large differences in content between the shows and in cautious behavior among viewers. Through both a selection-on-observables strategy and a novel instrumental variable approach, we find that areas with greater exposure to the show downplaying the threat of COVID-19 experienced a greater number of cases and deaths. We assess magnitudes through a simple epidemiological model highlighting the role of externalities and provide evidence that misinformation is a key underlying mechanism.
Examining the effects of misinformation is particularly important during a pandemic given the large externalities involved and the significant consequences of misinformed behavior for individuals’ health and for the health care system as a whole. The two most widely-viewed cable news shows in the United States — Hannity and Tucker Carlson Tonight, both on Fox News – originally took very different stances on the risks associated with the novel coronavirus. While Hannity downplayed the threat during the initial period of the virus’ spread in the United States, Tucker Carlson Tonight warned its viewers that the virus posed a serious threat from early February. In this paper, we show that differential exposure to these two shows affected behavior and downstream health outcomes.
We begin by validating differences in content with independent coding of shows’ transcripts. Consistent with the differences in content, we present new survey evidence that Hannity’s viewers changed behavior in response to the virus later than other Fox News viewers, while Carlson’s viewers changed behavior earlier. Using both OLS regressions with a rich set of controls and different instrumental variable strategies exploiting variation in the timing of TV consumption, we then document that greater exposure to Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight increased the number of total cases and deaths in the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic. We also show that a standard epidemiological model can, with reasonable parameter levels, match the approximate magnitude of our measured treatment effects. Finally, we also provide additional evidence that misinformation is an important mechanism driving the effects in the data. Our results indicate that the provision of misinformation on mass media can have significant societal consequences.
Thursday, June 18, 2020 Scoreboard: Hannity and Carlson Lead Fox News to 4th Straight Prime-Time Win
By Don McCanne, M.D.
Do television hosts have a responsibility when they disseminate misinformation that results in adverse consequences on the viewing audience? This elaborate study demonstrated that differential exposure to Fox’s Sean Hannity and Fox’s Tucker Carlson affected behavior and downstream health outcomes. They originally took very different stances on the risks associated with the novel coronavirus. Hannity downplayed the threat during the initial period of the virus’ spread in the United States, while Tucker Carlson warned his viewers that the virus posed a serious threat. The authors document that greater exposure to Hannity relative to Carlson increased the number of total cases and deaths in the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic. They also provide additional evidence that misinformation is an important mechanism driving the effects in the data.
Sean Hannity’s glib approach in disseminating misinformation killed people. He has personally contributed to the tragic outcomes of the COViD-19 pandemic. Yet the most recent ratings demonstrate that the public still supports Hannity and Carlson.
Freedom of speech does not allow you to shout “FIRE!” in a crowded theater, nor should it allow you to disseminate false information that creates a major public health hazard. Hannity’s audience may not care, but their behavior in a pandemic harms other innocent people. What should our response be?
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