Study: The COVID-19 (News) Medium Was the Message

Study: The COVID-19 (News) Medium Was the Message

In further evidence of the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic response, members of a survey panel who said they trusted Fox News more than CNN acknowledged significantly more risky behaviors and significantly fewer preventive behaviors versus those who trusted CNN more than Fox.

Moreover, the gulf between these groups widened after the month of May, even after adjusting for education, income, and other potential confounders, reported PhD student Erfei Zhao, of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and colleagues, writing in BMJ Global Health.

The authors discussed the relationship between political bias in the media with health behaviors, but they added they were also interested in exploring “[behavioral] change over the course of the pandemic related to the bias in trusted media sources.”

“While CNN had a more consistent narrative that matched the views and recommendations of health experts over the period of study, Fox News continued to shift their narratives in order to echo views of leaders of the republican party,” they said. Fox stopped calling the virus a “crisis” in April, the researchers noted, instead emphasizing “the importance of the economy on the health and well-being of Americans.”

Zhao and colleagues used data from the Understanding America Study COVID-19 Survey National Sample, an ongoing national, probability-weighted Internet panel of 9,000 adults. The survey started tracking the pandemic on March 10, with follow-up surveys every 2 weeks, beginning on April 1. Five waves of survey data were available, from March through June.

Respondents were asked about public health behaviors during the last 7 days, including wearing a face mask, washing hands or using hand sanitizer several times a day, postponing personal or social activities, avoiding eating at restaurants, and avoiding public spaces, gatherings, or crowds.

They were also asked if they engaged in risky public health behaviors, such as going out to a bar or club; visiting a friend’s, neighbor’s, or relative’s residence; having visitors at their own residence; or attending a gathering with more than 10 people, such as a wedding, funeral, religious service, birthday party, or concert.

Respondents were asked how much they trusted sources of information about the coronavirus, and based on the responses, researchers created three variables: those who trust CNN more than Fox News, those with equal or no preference, and those who trust Fox News more than CNN.

Overall, about 29% said they trusted CNN more than Fox, 52% said they had no preference, and 20% said they trusted Fox more than CNN. Within the sample, 42% were ages 18-44, about 36% were ages 46-64, and 23% were ages 65 and older. Two thirds of the sample were non-Hispanic whites.

Researchers observed preventive behaviors peaking from April 1 to April 29, but starting to drop afterwards. The exception was wearing masks, which increased over time, though it stabilized at the end of the study period.

The last two waves of the survey, around May and early June, were illustrative, with Zhao’s group finding a significantly greater reduction in preventive behaviors among those who trusted Fox compared to those who preferred CNN. In terms of risky behavior, “the positive effect of a preference for Fox News on risky [behaviors] is significantly enhanced,” the authors said.

Obvious limitations to the study included the difficulty in establishing causality between people’s media preferences and their health behaviors; Zhao and colleagues said no causal relationship can be determined from their data.

Finally, the authors warned both sides about the perils of mixing partisan information with public health.

“Health messaging, despite being one of the few effective ways to slow down the spread of the virus in the absence of a vaccine, is doomed to fail if the media [prioritize] political interests over population health,” they wrote.

  • Molly Walker is an associate editor, who covers infectious diseases for MedPage Today. She has a passion for evidence, data and public health. Follow

Disclosures

This study was supported by the NIH and the National Institute on Aging.

The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

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