A new working paper from three scholars at ETH Zürich, a Swiss university, draws a connection between information Americans consume via cable news and the likelihood of those viewers getting Covid-19 vaccinations. The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, specifically points to the correlation of misinformation broadcast by Fox News and lower Covid-19 vaccination rates across the country.
This study lays out a causal link between consuming Fox News and declining to get vaccinated independently of partisan affiliation or region.
On some level, that might seem obvious, given what we know about how Republicans as a demographic are disproportionately resistant to taking the vaccination. But this study lays out a causal link between consuming Fox News and declining to get vaccinated independently of partisan affiliation or region, and it suggests that Fox programming is playing a unique role in encouraging people to turn away from vaccinations.
It’s a prime example of how media matters. Media outlets don’t just shape the way that people think; they also alter their behavior in hugely meaningful ways. And in the case of a public health emergency, the stakes are plainly life and death — not just for those consuming information or misinformation, but also for those around them.
The working paper examines how, since May of this year, Fox News viewership has been associated with lower local vaccination rates, in contrast to CNN and MSNBC. Authors Matteo Pinna, Léo Picard and Christoph Goessmann establish a causal link by using information about how a news outlet's channel number can predict viewership numbers to establish a natural experiment and deal with a whole host of confounding variables. Basically if a channel has a smaller or larger number, it can play a role in who watches what — imagine channel surfers who are not choosing channels based purely on what they find ideologically preferable.
They rule out that the Fox numbers can be explained away by partisan affiliation or political ideology, region, local health policies, local Covid-19 infections and fatalities, or by general skepticism toward vaccines. Notably, the effect of Fox News is reported to impact people under the age of 65; older viewers, fortunately, seem to be unaffected.
The effect of Fox News is reported to impact people under the age of 65; older viewers, fortunately, seem to be unaffected.
The upshot: Watching one additional hour of Fox News per week “accounts for a reduction of 0.35 to 0.76 weekly full vaccinations per 100 people” in May and June. That might not sound huge, but it’s substantial when multiplied across millions of people.
The working paper’s findings are in line with other recent scholarship and polling that finds Fox News viewers are more likely to be affected by misinformation. A study published at the outset of the pandemic showed that viewers of conservative media like Fox News were more likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were exaggerating the virus to hurt former President Donald Trump.
But what makes this paper stand out is its finding that Fox has a unique role to play, which is not altogether surprising given the immense influence some of its pundits have. Fox’s most popular host, Tucker Carlson, has suggested that the Covid-19 vaccine was killing recipients; falsely stated that the vaccines are considered ineffective by the government; distorted and groundlessly cast doubt on reports by the CDC; and generally implied that untrustworthy authority figures are trying to force people to take questionable vaccines. Carlson’s campaign against the vaccines has been so strong that he’s actually rubbed several of his colleagues the wrong way and been contradicted by some Fox contributors online.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham and her guests have also framed vaccine efforts as authoritarian and encouraged paranoia about their potential risks. Other hosts have sent mixed signals or tried striking a middle ground by describing vaccination as a personal choice.
In response to a request for comment on the paper, a Fox News spokesperson pointed out that the network has aired pro-vaccine public service announcements and that a number of on-air personalities have gotten behind vaccination; they also pointed to a Morning Consult poll that found that vaccine hesitancy among Fox viewers is at an all-time low.
That same poll, however, showed Fox viewers to be more vaccine skeptical than CNN and MSNBC viewers by roughly 10 percentage points. And this new working paper says that’s not simply because Fox viewers are more conservative; it's because of Fox’s own programming. While some programming has provided responsible Covid-19 vaccine content, some of the biggest personalities on the network are actively pushing out false information and generating groundless suspicion.
What this study shows is that this stuff matters. Fox is not just part of an echo chamber but actively contributing to the development of a civil society where vaccinations are less trusted. The outcome is that all of us are less safe.