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Misinformation spread by right-wing Fox News host Sean Hannity about the severity of the COVID-19 may be costing his some of audience their lives. That's according to a new working study from the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago that examines coverage of the global pandemic in February and early March on two of the cable news network's highest-rated prime time shows, Hannity and Tucker Carlson Tonight, and suggests Hannity's viewers suffered greater infection and mortality rates than those of his Fox colleague. Hannity was an early denier of the seriousness of COVID-19, while Carlson was among the first to raise concerns.
The report by economists Leonardo Bursztyn, Aakaash Rao, Christopher Roth, and David Yanagizawa-Drott finds the evidence suggests "that greater viewership of Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight is strongly associated with a greater number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the early stages of the pandemic."
The authors are quick to point out the study is a work in progress and has not yet been submitted for review by fellow academics or peer journals. However, their preliminary findings are based on examination of show transcripts, information on viewer demographics, and publicly available statistics on infection and mortality rates across counties. The authors conducted a national survey of 1,045 Republicans aged 55 or older who watched Fox News at least once per week. This demographic was chosen due to the intersection of the network's older viewer demographics with an older population generally more vulnerable to serious complications from the virus due to age and an increased likelihood of underlying medical conditions.
In the early stages of the pandemic, Hannity had been notable for his claims that the virus would prove to be no more deadly or infectious than the common flu. Carlson, on the other hand, sounded the alarm early and often. As a result, the study found "evidence that Hannity's viewers changed behavior in response to the virus later than other Fox News viewers, while Carlson's viewers changed behavior earlier." The study finds "the results suggest that in mid-March, after Hannity's shift in tone, the diverging trajectories on COVID-19 cases begin to revert."
In a statement, Fox News called the study "factually wrong" and "reckless and irresponsible" in its use of "selective cherry-picked clips of Sean Hannity's coverage."