News & Politics

3 Huge Problems With the Study Claiming Fox News Viewers More Likely to Violate Social Distancing

FILE - In this March 2, 2017, file photo, Tucker Carlson, host of "Tucker Carlson Tonight," poses for photos in a Fox News Channel studio in New York. Carlson says he's shocked his segments this week on a South African policy on land reform should be considered an appeal to white nationalists - let alone spark an international incident. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

A new report claims that Americans who watch Fox News are more likely to violate social distancing guidelines. Yet there are many problems with the study and its conclusion, not the least of which is Fox News’ on-air support for social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“The average partial effect of Fox News viewership in a zipcode implies that 1 percentage point increase in cable viewership reduces the propensity to stay at home by 8.9 percentage points compared to the pre-pandemic average. We find a persuasion rate of Fox News on non-compliance with stay-at-home behavior during the crisis of about 33.5%-50% across our various social distancing metrics,” conclude researchers from Columbia University and the University of Chicago in a National Bureau of Economics Research (NBER) study published Tuesday.

Yet even the executive summary highlights serious problems with the research. The researchers admitted that they utilized “a quasi-experimental design” using “only the incremental local viewership due to the quasi-random assignment of channel positions in a local cable line-up.”

What does this mean?

First, the “quasi-random assignment” means the researchers limited their analysis to Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, “although in the main analysis we focus on the first two due to their higher viewership levels.” Channels like ABC News, CBS News, and NBC News were omitted entirely. In the main, it seems the study compared ZIP codes with higher Fox News viewership to ZIP codes with higher CNN viewership.

Second, the researchers did not even use contemporaneous data! Instead, they used 2015 data because Nielsen changed its survey methodology. The 2020 data only had ZIP code-level data for 44 of the 210 designated market areas (DMAs), so the researchers went with 2015 data, hoping it would “provide a reasonable proxy for 2020.”

Finally, the researchers focused on one form of social distancing: “the propensity to stay at home.”

“Since most social distancing policies allow for some forms of essential trips away from home, we use SafeGraph data that track multiple forms of stay-at-home behavior derived from cellphone location data. We then measure [social distancing] as the within-market evolution in daily stay-at-home propensity relative to the baseline level in January 2020, before the US outbreak of COVID-19. To measure the impact of social distancing on economic outcomes, we use transaction data from Facteus and firm closure data and employee counts from Homebase,” they wrote.

Perhaps the most important count against the study is Fox News’s coverage and examples of social distancing.

On March 15, Fox News host Greg Gutfeld compared the coronavirus pandemic to the September 11, 2001 attacks, saying the virus “creates fear because it’s out of your control.” Yet he added that “you can gain control by doing productive things. First, realize that we’re all in this together, even washing your hands and self-distancing reduces risk for everyone.”

“Staying in, checking on your older relatives, exercising at home — these acts are more important than you realize. You’re reducing vectors of transmission. You save lives simply by staying in and that is fantastic,” he explained.

Gutfeld began his show by showing his “live studio audience” — rows of empty seats.

Beginning on March 16, Fox News Media instituted telecommuting for both its New York and Washington, D.C. offices. The company reduced in-studio bookings and implemented social distancing. Programs hosted by more than one person engaged in social distancing, with co-hosts sitting six feet apart while guests and other co-hosts joined remotely.

Fox News also hired physicians, signing Johns Hopkins health policy expert Martin Makary, M.D., M.P.H. on March 13 and family and emergency medical professional Dr. Janette Neshiewat on March 16. Other contributors who are also doctors appeared throughout the network’s news and opinion programming.

Fox News has not been perfect in its coverage of the coronavirus, but neither have left-leaning outlets. Thanks in large part to the Chinese Communist Party’s lies, medical experts and media outlets — right-leaning and left-leaning — repeatedly insisted the coronavirus was no more dangerous than the annual flu. Even as late as March 4, CNN’s Anderson Cooper told viewers to “be more concerned about the flu” than about the coronavirus.

Ironically, one of the earliest television segments to seriously warn about the coronavirus came on Tucker Carlson Tonight. On January 28, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) went on the show, warning that “coronavirus will be considered the bigger story than impeachment.”

Liberal critics slam Fox News as uniquely unreliable, and a shady leftist group has even filed a consumer protection lawsuit against the news outlet, but the case against Fox News is shaky at best.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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