A new study produced by business school profs at Columbia and University of Chicago suggests that viewing Fox News is strongly correlated with ignoring social distancing guidance during the first weeks of the COVID19 epidemic and is in fact driving that non-compliance.
The researchers looked at geospatial data derived from anonymized cell phone data and cable channel position by ZIP code around the country. They found that a 1% increase in Fox News viewership in a zip code reduced social distancing by 8.9%.
The study abstract follows …
We test for and measure the effects of cable news in the US on regional differences in compliance with recommendations by health experts to practice social distancing during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. We use a quasi-experimental design to estimate the causal effect of Fox News viewership on stay-at-home behavior by using only the incremental local viewership due to the quasi-random assignment of channel positions in a local cable line-up. 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 prepandemic 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.
From reviewing the study it’s not entirely clear to me whether the persuasive effect of Fox News is demonstrated as opposed to the correlation. Fox News viewership is a marker for conservatives. Conservatives are less likely to social distance, etc. But that likely amounts to something similar since Fox is the key source of political information not only for Fox viewers but for the conservative information ecosystem generally. And the study does a decent job finding ways to isolate the persuasive element from the correlation. The authors do note, revealingly, that they are not able to fully distinguish between the impact of Fox News commentators versus the administration officials and especially the President whose views are so aggressively repeated and amplified.
In any case, here’s the study.