Counties in which residents watched more "Hannity" than "Tucker Carlson Tonight" during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic have seen a greater number of cases and deaths, according to a new study into the effects of news coverage on behavior and health outcomes.
In their working paper "Misinformation During a Pandemic," researchers at the University of Chicago contend that Hannity initially downplayed the virus on his show, including not mentioning it all for most of February, before gradually changing his position by mid-March, whereas Carlson warned viewers about the threat posed by the coronavirus from early February.
The two programs, both on Fox News, are the most widely-watched cable news shows in the United States, with each averaging around 4 million viewers nightly.
"While our findings cannot yet speak to long-term effects, they indicate that provision of misinformation in the early stages of a pandemic can have important consequences for how a disease ultimately affects the population," the paper said.
Transcripts show how frequently the coronavirus was covered
To demonstrate the differing coverage, researchers downloaded transcripts of each of the seven shows on Fox News airing between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. and counted how many times a list of coronavirus-related terms were mentioned each day.
"Both [Hannity and Carlson] first discussed the coronavirus in late January when the first case in the U.S. was reported," the paper said. "But Carlson continued to discuss the subject extensively throughout February while Hannity did not again mention it on his show until the end of the month."
Transcripts of the other five shows airing after 5 p.m. on Fox News fell somewhere in between, and by early March, the coronavirus word counts of all them had converged, according to the paper.
But even as Hannity discussed the coronavirus as frequently as Carlson during early March, "he downplayed its seriousness and accused Democrats of using it as a partisan tool to undermine the administration," the paper said.
Human coding demonstrates how each show portrayed COVID-19's threat
To show the differences more clearly, the researchers also used "human coding" of the scripts, by recruiting workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk to assess how seriously each of the seven programs portrayed the threat of the coronavirus between early February and mid-March.
For each episode that contained at least one coronavirus-related term, five workers read the entire episode script and answered "yes" or "no" to the question, "Did [the show] indicate that the virus is likely to infect many people in the US, causing many deaths or serious illnesses, or that many have already become infected and have died or become seriously ill?”
The workers rated Carlson as portraying the threat of the coronavirus more seriously than the other shows, and in turn rated the other Fox News shows as portraying the threat more seriously than Hannity. The workers' average episode ratings of Hannity converged with Carlson by mid-March.
Effects on behavior and health outcomes
The study then looks at the effects of viewership on the pandemic by surveying a sample of Fox News viewers and looking at COVID-19 trajectories across counties.
A survey of 1,045 Fox News viewers showed that Hannity's audience on average changed their behavior in response to the virus — including washing hands more often, canceling travel plans and practicing social distancing — five days later than other Fox News viewers, while Carlson's audience changed behavior three days earlier, according to the study.
Researchers claim they found that, controlling for a "rich set of county-level demographics," greater local viewership of "Hannity" compared to "Tucker Carlson Tonight" was associated with a greater number of COVID-19 cases starting in early March and a greater number of deaths starting in mid-March.
The estimated effects of exposure to each show became stronger as the researchers controlled for more factors, such as income, political party, race and age.
Fox News' response
Fox News said in a statement to InsideEdition.com, “The selective cherry-picked clips of Sean Hannity’s coverage used in this study are not only reckless and irresponsible, but down right factually wrong," adding that "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 January 27-February 26 including an early interview with Dr. Fauci in January. This is a reckless disregard for the truth.”
Among the researchers' evidence of how Hannity allegedly initially downplayed the virus was the fact that he did not mention coronavirus at all for several weeks on his show after his interview with leading infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci on Jan. 27, according to the paper.
When asked to comment on the allegation of lack of coverage, a spokesperson for Fox News pointed to an online timeline indicating five dates Hannity talked about coronavirus from the Jan. 27 to Feb. 26 time period mentioned in their statement.
InsideEdition.com found that three of those mentions were from Hannity's radio show, which was not part of the study. One of the mentions from the radio linked on the timeline to Jan. 28 appeared to be instead from March 23, after the two anchors' coverage had largely converged.
Fox News also criticized the study for not looking into the other outlets and politicians who they said downplayed the threat of the virus in the pandemic's early days.
The researchers said in their paper that Fox News may have a substantial influence on COVID-19 outcomes because it is the most watched cable network in the U.S.