The COVID-19 crisis has renewed concerns about the dangers of misinformation and its persuasive effects on behavior. The US response to the pandemic is deeply divided along partisan lines, with Republicans more skeptical about the risks of the pandemic and less engaged in social distancing than Democrats . Correlations between these differences in reactions and beliefs and exposure to the left- and right-leaning news sources are suggestive, albeit inconclusive, of an effect of differential messaging by politicians (Beauchamp, 2020) and the major media outlets that support them. The largest US cable news channel, Fox News, finds itself at the heart of this controversy, with a class action1 alleging that Fox News and other defendants “willfully and maliciously disseminate false information denying and minimizing the danger posed by the spread of the novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19, which is now recognized as an international pandemic”. The persuasive effect of a leading news media channel could have harmful consequences for the public if viewers disregard the social-distancing practices recommended by leading health experts and health organizations . In addition to personal health risks, noncompliance could also create a negative health externality through the transmission of disease to others in the community.
This study tested for and measured 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. It used 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 authors found that a 10% increase in Fox News cable viewership (approximately 0.13 higher viewer rating points) leads to a 1.3 percentage point reduction in the propensity to stay at home. They find a persuasion rate of Fox News on non-compliance with stay-at-home behavior during the crisis of about 11.9% - 25.7% across the various social distancing metrics.