A new study of almost 5,000 U.S. residents shows that TV viewers who prefer right-wing media such as Fox News take significantly fewer preventive measures against COVID-19, and engage in more behaviours likely to increase the risk of infection.
These findings appeared on October 8 in the journal BMJ Global Health.
The researchers wanted to find out if behaviours related to COVID-19 differed according to viewer trust in left-leaning or right-leaning TV media, and whether these behaviours changed over time.
They drew on data from the Understanding America Study (UAS) COVID-19 Survey National Sample. This is an ongoing longitudinal national online survey of approximately 9000 US adults living independently.
UAS began tracking the impact of the pandemic on March 10, 2020. It also included follow-up surveys every two weeks between April 1 and June 9 .
Hand washing, face masks, and going out
Participants were asked about their preventive behaviours over the past week, such as hand-washing and use of face coverings. They also answered questions about risky behaviours such as going out to bars or clubs, attending gatherings of more than 10 people, and visiting other people’s homes.
Likewise, they answered questions about how much they trusted 18 different media sources for information on COVID-19. The survey focused primarily on CNN and Fox News.
The final analysis included 4,863 respondents who had completed all five waves of the survey.
Around 29% of the sample said they trusted CNN more than Fox. About 52% expressed no preference, and 20% said they trusted Fox more than CNN.
CNN viewers engage in fewer risky behaviors than Fox viewers
Analysis of the responses showed that people who trusted CNN were more likely to engage in preventive behaviours, and less likely to report risky behaviours, than those who trusted Fox News.
Those who trusted Fox News more than CNN practised an average of 3.41 preventive behaviours, while people who trusted CNN more than Fox News practised 3.85. Fox News fans also engaged in an average of 1.25 risky behaviours, while CNN fans engaged in 0.94 risky behaviours.
Health behaviours changed significantly over the course of the CONID-19 coronavirus pandemic. People became more cautious as the pandemic unfolded, and then relaxed again.
But these changes also varied by media preference, with the speed of change much faster among those who preferred Fox News.
Age, gender, and education correlate with safer behaviors
During the last two survey waves, the people who expressed no media preference practised significantly more preventive and fewer risky behaviours than those who preferred Fox News. And they consistently exhibited significantly fewer preventive and more risky behaviours than those who preferred CNN, for all survey waves.
People aged 65 and above, women, those of non-Hispanic Asian ethnic backgrounds, and the most educated were all more likely to practise preventive behaviours. On the other hand, those with a job but unable to work from home were least likely to do so.
Is media preference a proxy for political preference?
The researchers point out that this is an observational study, and as such cannot establish causality.
But they do propose two possible explanations. The first is that behaviours are indeed influenced by media consumption. Compared to CNN, Fox News “consistently downplayed the danger of the virus,” the researchers write.
An alternative explanation is that behaviours are influenced more by political beliefs, and media preference is merely a proxy for political preference rather than an influential source of information.
It is possible, they write, that people who trust Fox News prefer a more “hands-off” approach. As such, they are more likely to refuse health policies such as self-quarantining and social distancing.
Study: “Media trust and infection mitigating behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic in the USA“
Authors: Erfei Zhao, Qiao Wu, Eileen M. Crimmins, and Jennifer A. Ailshire
Published in: BMJ Global Health
Publication date: October 8, 2020
Photo: by Anna Shvets via Pexels
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