The truly unprecedented refusal of 90 million Americans to accept a safe, available vaccine proven to prevent their own infection, sickness, or death from the COVID-19 virus (or the more recent, more transmissible delta variant) has itself spawned a substantial amount of scientific research. Of the various factors contributing to this trend among a huge swath of the U.S. population, political affiliation has generally been deemed the most important—as the stark disparities in vaccination rates between Democratic- and Republican-leaning states tend to show. And on the surface, that proposition seems inarguable: 86% of adult Democrats have received at least one dose of the vaccine compared to just 52% of Republicans. While some mostly Democratic constituencies remain unvaccinated (for various reasons), as the highly virulent delta variant progresses, that singular disparity has become more and more evident.
The sheer number of Americans willfully embracing the risks (to themselves and others) from COVID-19 has also provided a unique opportunity for researchers to examine that conclusion, drilling down into the data to determine the discrete factors driving this extraordinary behavior. In order to accurately identify those factors, it’s necessary to first separate political affiliation from the equation—to “control” for it, in other words—in order to isolate other, separate reasons that explain it.
Fortunately for science, the ubiquity of vaccine refusers and available data about them has equipped researchers with the raw tools (in terms of sample size) they need to accomplish this. The lethal nature of the pandemic may itself assist that effort, as many otherwise shy and reticent unvaccinated Republicans have boldly and often publicly revealed their status to medical professionals even as they lay gasping for their last tortured breaths in ICU units throughout the country, with some expressing sorrow or regret for their decisions. But as their remaining time on this Earth is often truncated or otherwise occupied by visits from their grieving families, it’s difficult to explore all of the factors that led to their fateful choices.
As Olga Khazan, writing for The Atlantic, explains, in February one peer-reviewed study determined that viewers of Fox News were statistically more likely to say they would refuse the COVID-19 vaccines than viewers of CNN or MSNBC. This appeared to confirm two prior (and not peer-reviewed) studies that showed a measurable correlation between Fox News viewership and refusal to comply with stay-at-home orders issued by governmental agencies to contain the spread of the virus. A Pew survey also conducted last year confirmed that Fox News viewers were also more likely than their CNN/MSNBC-watching counterparts to believe that the media had “greatly exaggerated” the pandemic, while other research showed that viewers of conservative news outlets felt that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports were being deliberately slanted to undermine the Trump administration.
These are all useful indicators of potential vaccine refusal, but researchers have been hampered by the lack of actual data to confirm that yes, watching Fox News does in fact cause people to forego getting vaccinated. Now that more data are coming into focus, a new study appears to confirm what many surmised for themselves long ago: Fox News is a major contributing factor for people refusing the COVID-19 vaccines. Put more succinctly, this research suggests that the conservative media outlet has quite literally convinced millions of Americans to risk their health and even their lives.
In a working paper entitled “Cable News and Covid-19 Vaccine Compliance,” researchers at the ETH Zurich Center for Law and Economics not only observed an association between lower vaccination rates among Fox News viewers since May 2021, but established a causal connection as well. As the authors explain, the specific association between Fox and vaccine refusal is driven by the population of viewers under the age of 65, those the least likely to feel threatened by COVID-19.
From the abstract:
We can rule out that the effect is due to differences in partisanship, to local health policies, or to local COVID-19 infections or death rates. The other two major television networks, CNN and MSNBC, have no effect, indicating that messaging matters and that the observed effect on vaccinations is not due the consumption of cable news in general. We also show that there is no historical effect of Fox News on flu vaccination rates, suggesting that the effect is COVID-19-specific and not driven by general skepticism toward vaccines.
The research paper (which has not yet been peer-reviewed) bases its causal determination, in part, on the “exogenous” factor of Fox’s position in the local channel lineup on a county-by-county basis using data available for 47 states, a tool that has been firmly validated in economic and political studies to determine causation.
The networks’ channel position in the lineup provides an exogenous instrument for viewership, as widely used in economics and political science. … Leveraging the exogenous variation in viewership, we estimate a local average treatment effect and find qualitatively coherent results. Exogenously higher FNC viewership due to channel position causes lower vaccine compliance. [...]
Overall, the results support the interpretation that FNC promulgated a uniquely skeptical narrative about vaccines. That narrative caught on and reduced compliance among the marginal vaccine recipient.
The researchers note that their results are not only attributable to Fox’s conservative and anti-science coverage, but also its skeptical treatment of the actual COVID-19 vaccines. As Khazan points out, Fox does not simply advise its viewers to avoid vaccination; what it actually does is more insidious and calculated. By casting aspersions and doubts about the motives of those who promote vaccination (such as Anthony Fauci or President Biden), Fox’s media personalities foster a skepticism toward the vaccines themselves:
The power of shows like [Tucker] Carlson’s is less in the information they offer than in the assumptions they perpetuate, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “If you hear the word lie tied to Anthony Fauci, and Anthony Fauci now comes on in a completely different venue, the assumption is, you can’t trust Anthony Fauci,” she says.
The implications of these findings (which to those of us attuned to politics may seem self-evident) are profound. For the past year and a half, our country has essentially allowed a political propaganda outlet to negatively influence the collective health decisions of millions of American citizens, decisions that have and will continue to have a potentially devastating impact on nearly every facet of our public life, from peoples’ personal health to economic decision-making, planning, and expenditures. This harmful impact is being allowed to occur at both the state and national level. And all of it is being done in service of profit to a single, monolithic media outlet to satisfy a political agenda.
Of course the impact on individual lives through the influence of this media behemoth is incalculable as the outcome of its propagandizing follows its natural course. Entire states have now become zones of unchecked infection among the unvaccinated population, leaving small children—who have no power to decide whether to get the vaccine even when it becomes available to them—vulnerable and susceptible to the virus due to Fox-warped health decisions made by parents and by complete strangers. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington posits at least another 76,000 deaths by Nov. 1, but the truth is that no one really knows. The reason that nobody knows is because we have no similar country (in terms of an unvaccinated population) to compare ourselves to.
Former CDC Director Tom Frieden:
Fox’s symbiotic relationship to the Republican Party, effectively acting as its unofficial mouthpiece, has amplified the effectiveness of its anti-vaccine propaganda exponentially. During the Trump administration, for example, it was virtually impossible to separate Fox News from the pronouncements of administration officials (including, of course, Trump himself). With political figures such as Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis taking their cues directly from Fox to preserve their own viability and ambitions, an epidemic of the unvaccinated was a foregone conclusion in this country.
The sheer human damage and suffering in lives lost and families destroyed or ruined by this media conglomerate and its cynical purveyors is absolutely incalculable. For decades the remaining media in this country have tended to be reticent in their depictions and assessment of Fox News’ coverage, presumably out of fear of appearing too “political.” But those fears are academic at this point: It’s no longer a debate about the fine lines between freedom of speech, journalism, and political propaganda. It’s now simply about the deliberate, calculated endangerment of human lives, driven solely by profit.