Counties Where Hannity Viewers Outnumber Tucker Carlson’s Have Had More COVID-19 Deaths, Study Finds

Fox spokesperson calls study “reckless” and says it ignores Hannity’s early coronavirus coverage from January and February

Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson
Ed Rode / Rich Polk / Getty Images

Counties where viewers of Fox News’ “Hannity” outnumbered “Tucker Carlson Tonight” were associated with a higher number of COVID-19 deaths in the early stages of the pandemic, according to a new study from the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute for Economics.

Although the two most-watched cable shows air on the same network, the study’s authors analyzed transcripts from each and concluded that “Carlson warned viewers about the threat posed by the coronavirus from early February, while Hannity originally dismissed the risks associated with the virus before gradually adjusting his position starting late February.”

The study’s authors — Leonardo Bursztyn, Aakaash Rao, Christopher Roth and David Yanagizawa-Drott — wrote in the working paper that they were interested in studying the effects of the two most-watched cable news shows in the U.S. to monitor for an effect on viewer behavior and health outcomes.

The researchers surveyed 1,045 Fox News viewers aged 55 and older in April on their changes in behavior — such as with more hand washing, canceling travel plans and social distancing — in response to the virus. The study found that Hannity’s viewers changed their behaviors five days later than other Fox News viewers, while Carlson’s viewers changed their behaviors three days earlier than other Fox News viewers.

The study’s authors then looked at county-by-county viewership of the shows and confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Accounting for “a number of unobservable dimensions that could independently affect the spread of the virus,” the study’s authors found that an increase in exposure to “Hannity” in comparison to “Tucker Carlson Tonight” was associated with roughly 30% more COVID-19 cases on March 14 and 21% more COVID-19 deaths on March 28. But the effects of the shows on COVID-19 cases began to decline by mid-March, the researchers found, after they detected a “shift in tone” on Hannity’s show transcripts beginning in late February.

In response to the study, a spokesperson for Fox News said that the clips from Hannity’s coverage were “cherry-picked” and that the study was “reckless and irresponsible.”

“As this timeline proves, Hannity has covered COVID-19 since the early days of the story. The ‘study’ almost completely ignores his coverage and repeated, specific warnings and concerns from January 27-February 26 including an early interview with Dr. Fauci in January,” the spokesperson told TheWrap in a statement. “This is a reckless disregard for the truth.”

Hannity also defended his comments about the virus in an interview with Newsweek earlier this month — a day after 74 journalism professors and journalists wrote an open letter to him, criticizing his coverage as being a “danger to public health.” The Fox News host also pointed to his January 27 conversation with Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, who told the Fox News host that America was “prepared” to handle the virus and that there was a “low risk” at the time, but with the possibility that it “could get much worse.”

In March, Hannity also faced pushback after using the word “hoax” in relation to the coronavirus — a phrase he claims he was using in reference to how Democrats were using the pandemic to supposedly “bludgeon Trump.”

“They’re scaring the living hell out of people and I see it again like, ‘Oh, let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax,’” Hannity said on a March 9 episode of his show.

The University of Chicago study’s authors acknowledged that their findings could not speak to the “longer-term effects of exposure to the two shows, which might include additional health and information spillovers,” nor does it speak to the “overall effect on the total cases and death toll associated with the coronavirus in the U.S.,” but that it did add to the ongoing conversation about how media coverage can impact human behavior.

“We provide evidence that greater exposure to ‘Hannity’ relative to ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’ increased cases and deaths throughout March and early April. However, it is possible that these effects will fade — and even possibly flip — over time,” the study said. “While our findings cannot yet speak to long-term effects, they indicate that provision of misinformation in the early stages of a pandemic can have important consequences for how a disease ultimately affects the population.”