News media and distrust in scientific experts
Since the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US, the media has broadcast polarising accounts of the virus’ risks, its severity, and the appropriate measures to combat it in spite of a high consensus in the global scientific community regarding the high risks of the disease spread and the importance of social distancing measures. CNN and MSNBC broadcast dire warnings about the spread of disease throughout February and March of 2020. In February, CNN interviewed CDC Director Robert Redfield regarding disease transmission and later highlighted the CDC warning: “It’s not a question of whether coronavirus will spread, but when.”1 In contrast, even after cases had emerged in the US and the World Health Organization had declared an international health emergency, several anchors at Fox News, the leading US news network, repeatedly downplayed the risks. In late February, Laura Ingraham accused the democratic part of “weaponising fear,” labelling them as the “pandemic party.”2 In March, only three days before the White House declared a national emergency, Sean Hannity claimed “99% recover very fast, even if they contract it [COVID-19]” and quipped “You notice there’s no widespread hysteria about violence in Chicago.”3
After a sobering report by the Imperial College COVID-19 team recommended social distancing to mitigate the speed of transmission, a policy recommendation echoed throughout the epidemiological research community (e.g. Wang et al. 2020, Anderson et al. 2020, Hsiang et al. 2020, Lewnard and Lo 2020), Fox continued to broadcast Ingraham’s criticisms of these “so-called experts” and their “lame pandemic-inducing models.”4 With 49% of Americans relying on televised news as their primary source of current events (Shearer 2018), this mixed coverage of scientific expert accounts and their recommendations for social distancing raises concerns about the potential persuasive effects of news misinformation on public health and wellbeing. Of particular concern is whether the news media creates distrust in objective, scientific sources to govern public policies. Our research in Simonov et al. (2020) tests for and measures the persuasive effect of Fox News viewership on compliance with social distancing during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US.
Several scholars have voiced their concerns about the increasing lack of public engagement with scientific organisations and scientific evidence (see the discussion in Gauchat 2012). Various surveys and polls have documented widespread distrust in the US of scientific experts and their recommendations for a range of issues including global warming, obesity, healthcare, and nuclear power (e.g. Nisbet and Myers 2007, Bleich et al. 2007, Gilson 2003, and Slovic 1993). For instance, according to a recent ABC poll, only 32% of Americans “trust the things that scientists say about the environment” “completely” or “a lot” (ABC 2006). According to a Pew report, only 49% of US adults agree that human activity causes global climate change, in contrast with 84% of scientists (Rosentiel 2009).
A recent literature in psychology has documented the natural human nature to under-weight useful advice, a phenomenon termed ‘advice discounting’ (see the survey by Bonaccio and Dalal 2006), even when the advisor is a recognised expert whose opinions would lead to objectively superior outcomes (e.g. Harvey and Fisher 1997). Such advice discounting and distrust in scientific experts is increasingly believed to arise from motivated reasoning, whereby individuals are motivated to deny or disparage evidence that is inconsistent with their own beliefs and attitudes (e.g. Kraft et al. 2015). Such motivated reasoning might explain the polarisation of distrust along political and religious boundaries. For instance, liberals are most likely to reject scientific evidence supporting nuclear power (Washburn and Skitka 2018), whereas conservatives are most likely to reject evidence on climate change (Dunlap 2008). Similarly, distrust in science since 1974 has grown most prominently among Americans who self-identify as conservative, coinciding with the emergence of the ‘New Right’ during the late 1970s (Gauchat 2012). This trend coincides with conservative opposition to stem cell research, vaccinations for sexually transmitted diseases like HPV, and other scientific developments that might be perceived as contrary to religious beliefs. Congruence with one’s cultural worldviews may be an even more important driver of trust in scientific evidence than political beliefs (e.g. Leiserowitz et al. 2013).
An extant literature has also conjectured that the media plays a role in shaping distrust in scientific experts and scientific advice. Fake news can change consumers’ beliefs (e.g. Allcott and Gentzkow 2017 and Barrera et al. 2020). Turning to scientific evidence specifically, content analyses show that the conservative media systematically claims a lack of consensus on the reality of climate change (Dunlap and McCright 2010) and an annual Gallup poll has found that 33%-45% of Americans view “the seriousness of global warming” as “generally exaggerated” based on “what is said in the news” since 2007 (Gallup 2019). At the same time, CNN is less likely to give equal time to climate sceptics (Hmielowski et al. 2014). Unfortunately, the evidence is typically suggestive at best. Correlation between media slant and viewer trust in scientific experts could merely reflect the self-selected manner in which viewers choose which media to consult in the first place. In general, it would be difficult to administer a field experiment that randomly assigns viewers to media sources.
In Simonov et al. (2020), we devise a novel quasi-experimental design to test for a persuasive media effect on viewer attitudes towards scientific evidence during the COVID-19 outbreak in the US. We exploit the quasi-random manner in which news channels were historically assigned a numerical channel position across the more than 2,000 cable systems in the US (Martin and Yurukoglu 2017). In general, the viewership of a given channels falls for larger numeric position (moving away from 1). We also exploit the access to detailed individual, daily movement behaviour using a panel of millions of mobile phones to construct daily social distancing measures at the zip-code level. Our empirical strategy consists of correlating the incremental viewership of a news channel due to its channel position with local compliance in social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis.
Social distancing behaviour was flat throughout January and February of 2020. On 29 February 2020 – the day the governor of Washington issued the first emergency declaration in the US – we observe a sudden nationwide increase in social distancing (decrease in propensity to leave home). Social distancing continued to trend upwards until 13 March 2020 – the day that President Trump issued a national emergency declaration – at which point distancing levelled off and settled throughout late March and April. Our goal consists of isolating the role of the news media consumption on geographic differences in the degree of compliance with social distancing (e.g. Borgonovi and Andrieu 2020). Compliance may also be affected by other factors such as social capital, trust in government, and political beliefs (e.g. Giuliano and Rasul 2020).
We plot the time series of two-day Fox News viewership effects on social distancing between February and April 2020 in Figure 1. The effect approximately measures the impact of a 1% change in viewership in a zip code on the propensity to stay at home in percentage points. Once again, we only start to detect a Fox News effect after 29 February, the day the state of Washington issued the first emergency declaration in the US. The Fox News effect increases in magnitude until 13 March, at which point it stabilises. After 13 March, we find that a 10% increase in Fox News viewership in a given zip code causes a 1.3 percentage point decline in social distancing compliance. The results also align with recent work attributing exposure to specific Fox News shows (Hannity versus Tucker Carlson Tonight) on social distancing compliance (e.g. Bursztyn et al. 2020). More generally, we find that the Fox News persuasion rate – the ability to convert the behaviour of those Fox News viewers who would have complied but for their exposure to Fox News broadcasts – was as high as 26%. This result aligns with previous work that measured a large persuasion rate for Fox News viewership on voting behaviour during the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections (Martin and Yurukoglu 2017).
Figure 1 Causal effect of Fox News viewership on propensity to stay at home.
Our findings present a worrisome aspect of US news media and its ability to sew viewer distrust in scientific experts and scientific evidence, potentially generating an additional source of media power (e.g. Prat 2014). Regardless of the accuracy and reliability of the scientific evidence, we see a cause for concern if many US households turn to televised news as their second opinion when the scientific community presents evidence that is inconsistent with viewers’ personal beliefs. This distrust could have dire consequences for the ability of leaders to generate public support for policies that rely on scientific evidence to improve the health and wellbeing of their constituents.
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1 “How Fox News misled viewers about the coronavirus”, CNN Business, 13 March.
2 “The pandemic party. Left weaponizing coronavirus fears”, The Ingraham Angle, 27 February 2020.
3 “Sean Hannity attempts to minimize the coronavirus concerns by comparing it to violence in Chicago”, MediaMatters, 10 March 2020.
4 “The coronavirus crisis is teaching us a lot about the so-called experts”, The Ingraham Angle, 14 April 2020.