Watching Fox News in the US may kill you

Recent US studies demonstrate that watching Murdoch’s US Fox News increases the likelihood of you believing what’s not true about COVID-19 and – if acting on it – possibly dying.

The studies are also an indication that Fox audiences are modern day versions of a Montaigne insight from almost 500 years ago. In his essay It is folly to measure the true and false by our own capacity he said: “Perhaps it is not without reason that we attribute facility in belief and conviction to simplicity and ignorance: for it seems to me I once learned that belief was a sort of information impression made on our mind, and that the softer and less resistant the mind, the easier it was to imprint something on it.”

The Washington Post (28/6/2020) reported on a Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and two other studies, on how informed people were about COVID-19 compared with seasonal flu; whether being a Republican or Democrat made a difference to what you believed; how the media you use influence your views; does media usage correlate with accurate or inaccurate information regarding SARS-CoV-2 prevention; does the use of social media rather than either broadcast or traditional print media correlate with belief in misinformation and conspiracy theories regarding SARS-CoV-2; and, does use of social media or of conservative media correlate with increased belief in conspiracy theories?

The most surprising finding in the Harvard study was perhaps that 96% of the sample had heard about COVID-19. That sounds pretty good until you remember that the US population of people aged over 17 is 251 million so four per cent of that is a lot.

About four in ten knew that someone with coronavirus was more likely to die as a result than was a person who had contracted the seasonal flu; 38% thought that one disease was as likely as the other to result in death; 13% considered the seasonal flu more deadly, and, 8% said “it depends” Lots of people were also unsure about the need for hand washing and avoiding close contact with those showing respiratory symptoms.

Beliefs about Vitamin C were also influenced by either ignorance or misinformation. 13% believed that it was probably or definitely false that taking vitamin C was preventative; 21% reported that it is definitely or probably true that taking vitamin C can prevent a person from being infected with coronavirus and an additional twenty six percent were unsure.

Democrats were more likely to believe the virus is more lethal than the flu while Republicans were more likely to believe that the Centre for Disease Control(CDC )was exaggerating the threat of the coronavirus to hurt President Donald Trump.

Needless to say beliefs correlate with media consumption habits. For instance, exposure to mainstream broadcast and cable correlated positively with reporting that the novel coronavirus is more lethal than the flu.

“Exposure to mainstream print was positively associated with holding more accurate beliefs about prevention of infection with SARS-CoV-2. Specifically, exposure to sources such as the Associated Press, The New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal was positively associated with accurately believing that regular hand washing and avoiding contact with symptomatic people prevent infection”, the study found.

“Exposure to mainstream print was negatively associated with the beliefs that taking vitamin C can prevent infection, some in the CDC were exaggerating the threat to harm Trump, and the virus is a bioweapon created by the Chinese government.” In contrast, “use of conservative media (sources such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh) correlated with beliefs in the malign underlying motives of some at the CDC and the Chinese origin of the virus.

“Furthermore, exposure to conservative media correlated with unwarranted confidence in vitamin C consumption as a means of preventing infection by SARS-CoV-2.”.

Social media was also a problem with “exposure to outlets such as the web aggregators Google News and Yahoo News correlated with lower belief in the efficacy of regular hand washing and avoiding contact with symptomatic individuals. Exposure to sources such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube was positively correlated with belief in the efficacy of vitamin C, the belief that the CDC was exaggerating the threat to harm President Trump, and the belief that the virus was created by the US government.”

Another study by the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at the impact of incorrect beliefs on how people acted. They used location data from millions of mobile phones (doing better than the UK, Australian and US governments with tracing) to find that a 10 percent increase in Fox News viewership within a postal area reduced its residents’ propensity to stay home, in compliance with public health guidelines, by about 1.3 percentage points.

In April, Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign examined how Americans’ media diets affected their beliefs about the coronavirus. 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 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exaggerated the pandemic’s threat ‘to damage the Trump presidency.”

It also found that Fox News viewers were less likely to comply with public health guidelines than consumers of other media.

And if you want to know why Trump had fallen out of love with Fox News host, Tucker Carlson, the NBER study results indicate that watching Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight is more dangerous – with Hannity being a much louder Trump promoter than Carlson.

Although Carlson does seem to trying to get back into Trump’s good books with his vicious attacks on Tammy Duckworth who lost her legs serving in Iraq. And after all, what’s she got to complain about when compared with Trump’s tragic bone spurs?

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Noel Turnbull is a blogger who has had a 40-year-plus career in public relations, politics, journalism and academia.

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