Fox News viewers are less likely to follow coronavirus safety measures than people who watch CNN, study finds

Fox News viewers are less likely to follow coronavirus safety measures than people who watch CNN, study finds
Sopa Images/Getty Images; Andrea Michelson/Insider
  • People who reported they trust Fox News over CNN were slightly more likely to take risks and less likely to engage in preventive behaviors during the coronavirus pandemic, according to survey data.
  • While Fox News watchers and CNN viewers alike eased up on precautions around May, the Fox fans displayed a sharper increase in risky behaviors.
  • The study authors urged news outlets to forgo political bias and focus on promoting public health.

The coronavirus has dominated the news for the past seven months, but media coverage of the pandemic has been anything but homogenous. Tune into a left-leaning channel and you'll likely hear recommendations to stay home and social distance, while a right-leaning outlet may downplay the threat of the virus, a study published in BMJ Global Health found.

Researchers at the University of Southern California found that this difference in health messaging across the media's political spectrum is reflected in individuals' decision-making during the pandemic.

Among nearly 5,000 American adults surveyed, those who reported they trust Fox News coverage more than CNN's were less likely to take preventive measures, such as wearing a face mask, and more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as attending large gatherings.

The respondents completed online surveys every two weeks from mid-March to June, and across the board, people began taking more risks around the month of May. The increase in risky behaviors was more prominent in the Fox News crowd, study author Erfei Zhao told Insider.

"This decline was most pronounced among those who trust in Fox News, which matched the messaging from Fox News that kept downplaying the harm of the virus, and also questioning the efficiency of social distancing and wearing masks and highlighting the need to reopen the economy," said Zhao, a PhD student at USC's Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.


Trust in news was associated with differences in behavior

The researchers specifically looked at media preference because they believed trust in media would play a role in people's decisions regarding prevention and risky behavior.

"It's not about what media they watch, it's about what media they trust," Zhao said. "That's a very important difference because people turn to their trusted source of information to get clarity on complex situations."

Around 29% of respondents said they trust CNN more than Fox, about half (52%) expressed no preference between the two outlets, and 20% said they trust Fox more than CNN.

The differences in behavior across those groups were small, but statistically significant. People who trust Fox News more than CNN practiced an average of 3.41 out of five preventive behaviors and 1.25 out of five risky behaviors between March and June. Those who trust CNN more than Fox News engaged in an average of 3.85 preventive behaviors and 0.94 risky behaviors.

Preventive behaviors included avoiding public places, washing hands, wearing face masks, avoiding eating in restaurants, and canceling social plans. Risky behaviors, on the other hand, encompassed going to places like restaurants or shopping malls, attending gatherings of more than 10 people, having visitors over, visiting other people's residences, and any close contact with people outside of one's home.


Health messaging in the media has implications for the spread of the coronavirus

Martin Andersen, an assistant professor of health economics at University of North Carolina at Greensboro who was not affiliated with the study, said he finds it particularly concerning that Fox News viewers are less likely to avoid public places and wear masks — behaviors that are vital to personal health and containing the pandemic.

"If Fox News viewers are less likely to engage in these behaviors then we should be seeing higher COVID-19 case growth in parts of the country that trust Fox News over CNN, which is consistent with what we have been seeing over the past few months," Andersen wrote in an email to Insider.

What's more, one person choosing not to take health precautions can snowball to affect the health of others. Your neighbor's preference for Fox News could increase your likelihood of contracting the coronavirus, Andersen added.

Given the wide-reaching effects of personal behaviors during the pandemic, the study authors urged news outlets to forgo political partisanship in favor of public health.

"For people who have the power to influence people's decisions, it's important for them to take accountability and prioritize people's health first," Zhao said.