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Media Matters: Fox has undermined coronavirus science in at least 325 segments since January 25
During those segments, Fox pushed at least 547 arguments undermining public health measures, confidence in health officials, vaccine efforts, or coronavirus facts and data
Since January 25, Fox has undermined, doubted, misrepresented, or otherwise dismissed coronavirus science at least 547 times in as many as 325 segments.
Media Matters reviewed our internal archive of cable news segments airing weekdays from 6 a.m. through midnight for any statements that undermined coronavirus science on Fox News. We broadly categorized the network’s coronavirus science misinformation into six different angles of attack: politicizing health measures, dismissing health measures, unfairly criticizing health officials, undermining COVID-19 vaccines, misrepresenting basic coronavirus facts, and dismissing or politicizing coronavirus data. We counted each angle once per segment. Segments could -- and often did -- include more than one angle.
- From January 25 through April 23, 2021, Fox News personalities and guests misinformed viewers about the science of the coronavirus in at least 325 segments.
- Misinformation was spread across the network on both its so-called “news” and “opinion” shows. The shows that aired the most segments against coronavirus science were The Ingraham Angle (59), Fox & Friends (57), Fox News Primetime (44), Tucker Carlson Tonight (34), The Story with Martha MacCallum (19), and America’s Newsroom with Bill Hemmer and Dana Perino (18).
Of the 325 segments that attacked coronavirus science:
- 47% politicized health measures designed to slow the spread of the virus.
- 39% dismissed the efficacy of health measures.
- 37% implicitly or explicitly alleged that health experts or government officials could not be trusted on guidelines designed to protect the public from the spread of coronavirus.
- 27% undermined vaccine efficacy, encouraged vaccine hesitancy, or politicized vaccines.
- 13% misrepresented basic facts about transmission and infection risks or misrepresented health studies on the coronavirus.
- 5% dismissed, misrepresented, or politicized coronavirus data.
Fox's assault on coronavirus science
During the 13 weeks following January 25, Media Matters identified at least 325 segments that featured Fox News personalities or guests undermining coronavirus science by politicizing the implementation or dismissing the efficacy of health measures designed to slow the spread of the virus; undermining confidence in guidelines by attacking prominent health experts and government officials; downplaying the efficacy of vaccines or encouraging vaccine hesitancy; or misinforming viewers about basic facts on transmission, infection risk, or other data.
These attacks on science are having real-world consequences. At the beginning of our study period, little more than 1% of the U.S. population was fully vaccinated. By April 23, approximately 29% of the U.S. population had seen two weeks pass since receiving their final shot.
But vaccination rates in the U.S. have slowed recently. Polling from CBS News/YouGov suggests that vaccine hesitancy is stubbornly sitting at roughly 22% of those polled, and another 18% aren’t yet sure whether they will get any coronavirus vaccine. Republicans -- who favor Fox as their regular news source over other conservative cable outlets -- are more likely than other groups to reject the vaccines: 30% told pollsters that they would not get any vaccine while another 19% were unsure. (The poll doesn’t take into account children, who are not being vaccinated yet and who make up 22% of the population.)
Such reluctance from adults threatens to prevent the U.S. from reaching herd immunity through immunization. This observation is bolstered by a recent study from The Journal of Medical Internet Research, which found that exposure to conservative media increased COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs and led to mask and vaccine reluctance.
Media Matters reviewed Fox segments that included misinformation or attacks undermining coronavirus science and found a persistent theme of Fox personalities and guests sowing doubt. Week after week, Fox viewers were inundated with statements undermining health measures and vaccines, attacking health officials, and misrepresenting basic coronavirus facts and data.
Attacks on health measures, guidelines, and those tasked with implementing them
The consensus view from health officials here at home and abroad is clear: Masking, social distancing, and business closures all help slow the spread of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found both social distancing and cloth facial masking to be effective mitigation strategies, and studies suggest that lockdowns and closures saved millions of lives.
But Fox viewers heard a different story. In at least 152 segments, or 47% of the segments that undermined coronavirus science, Fox personalities and guests politicized the implementation of health measures designed to slow the spread of the virus. Top shows to misinform viewers in this way were Fox News Primetime with 29 segments, The Ingraham Angle with 28, and Fox & Friends with 25.
These segments included statements mocking politicians, health experts, or other public figures for advocating for or adhering to these health measures as well as statements that explicitly or implicitly labeled such measures a form of control or a violation of constitutional or civil rights, liberties, or freedoms. Take this clip of Fox’s Tucker Carlson from the March 31 episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight as an example of the network’s coverage, with the host mocking both President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for wearing “silly little obedience masks.”
Likewise, Carlson implied in another clip earlier in March that social distancing and face masks amount to a violation of Americans’ rights.
Furthermore, in at least 128 segments, or 39%, Fox personalities and guests dismissed the efficacy of health measures all together. Fox host Laura Ingraham led this line of attack with 34 segments. Following The Ingraham Angle was Fox & Friends with 24 segments and Fox News Primetime with 23.
In this Fox & Friends clip from April 19, frequent Fox guest Alex Berenson -- one of the most prolifically wrong commentators on the coronavirus pandemic -- flatly dismissed mask-wearing as “ludicrous”:
On March 9, Fox “news”-side anchor Martha MacCallum expressly doubted the efficacy of masks on her show The Story: “I always think we're going to look back at these studies and wonder about the true effectiveness of masks and whether or not they really did make a difference.” Her guest, former Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Brett Giroir, was forced to push back, responding, “I do believe masks work.”
On April 6, Fox News Primetime guest host Mark Steyn proclaimed lockdowns and business closures an “utter failure” while mocking scientists in clips detailing the potential risk from coronavirus mutations should the world fail to immunize its populations with sufficient speed.
While Fox railed against health measures, personalities and guests on the network also directed their ire at health experts and government officials tasked with developing and implementing health policy at a national scale. In at least 121 segments, or 37%, Fox implicitly or explicitly alleged that officials could not be trusted on guidelines designed to protect the public from the spread of the coronavirus. This included accusations of hypocrisy or criticism of officials for updating their guidance as understanding of the coronavirus changed.
The Ingraham Angle once again led with 23 segments while Fox & Friends and Tucker Carlson Tonight followed with 20 and 19 segments, respectively. On March 31, Ingraham accused health officials of leading a “disinformation campaign,” and earlier that month -- while falsely implying that mask use correlated with a spike in coronavirus cases -- she told her viewers to simply ignore them.
Ingraham’s criticism of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci for expressing an evolving opinion on general mask use was a common refrain throughout the network, such as when Fox anchor Sandra Smith hyperbolically asked about mask use: “Do I wear two? Do I wear three? Is it safer to wear eight? Where does it stop?”
Undermining the vaccine effort and stoking vaccine hesitancy
As the U.S. rolled out plans to vaccinate American adults, Fox slowly began its crusade against immunization. Despite clear scientific evidence on the efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines, Fox undermined the vaccine effort in at least 88 segments, or 27%, including doubting the efficacy of the vaccines, suggesting that the vaccines are a method of control, or downplaying the need for continued health measures in spite of guidance from health officials. Carlson and Ingraham were at the forefront of this campaign, each with 14 segments that undermined COVID-19 vaccines. Behind them once again was Fox & Friends, with 12 segments.
In addition to overt attacks, Carlson often deployed the more insidious tactic of just “asking questions” to cast doubt on vaccination efforts. For instance, on February 9, he asked, “When are we finally going to repeal corona law, and what about this vaccine? Why are Americans being discouraged from asking simple, straightforward questions about it? Questions like, ‘How effective are these drugs? Are they safe?’” On April 13, he asked, “At some point, no one is asking this but everyone should be, ‘What is this about?’ If vaccines work, why are vaccinated people still banned from living normal lives?” On April 15, he asked, “So, does the vaccine -- and there are a couple of them -- but do they work or don't they work?”
That last clip led into an interview with conservative commentator and former Fox host Glenn Beck, who implored that we “go back to a system of actual science where men and women are free to ask honest questions” before he would agree to get immunized. To which Carlson replied, “If you want us to trust the experts, get competent experts.”
In at least 41 segments, or 13%, Fox personalities and guests misled on basic facts about transmission and infection risks or misrepresented health studies on the coronavirus. The Ingraham Angle misinformed its audience in this way more than twice as often as the next show, with 15 such segments.
And in at least 17 segments, or 5%, Fox dismissed, misrepresented, or politicized coronavirus data, which included positivity rates, case numbers, hospitalizations, and death tolls. Again, The Ingraham Angle was far ahead of other Fox programs with six segments -- three times the frequency of any other Fox program.
During Tucker Carlson Tonight’s April 22 episode, Berenson seemed to imply that outdoor transmission of the coronavirus was nearly impossible. After claiming that “there’s basically no evidence of outdoor transmission,” he cited a study out of China from three universities -- University of Hong Kong, Southeast University, and Tsinghua University -- and claimed it found “almost no outdoor transmission.”
But as The San Francisco Chronicle reported, the study lacked peer review, and therefore, it was “not suitable as a guidance for clinical practice.” Subsequent data has found more instances of outdoor transmission: In a database of about 20,000 cases, 6% could be linked to outdoor transmission, notably at crowded gatherings and events. So while the risk of infection is much less outdoors, it is not basically zero as implied by Berenson.
On February 25 after Fox News Primetime guest host Katie Pavlich decried teachers’ unions and the left for “advocating that these public health measures stay intact forever and ever and ever,” Berenson falsely claimed that school reopenings in Florida did not result in an increase of coronavirus cases: “The schools have been open in Florida since September [of 2020], basically with a little bit of mitigation, but they’ve really been open. And there’s no evidence that pediatric cases are up.”
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that September: “One month into the forced reopening of Florida's schools, dozens of classrooms -- along with some entire schools -- have been temporarily shuttered because of coronavirus outbreaks, and infections among school-age children have jumped 34 percent.”
Fox’s misinformation campaign against coronavirus science is not just a disservice to its viewership. The effect of months of misleading coverage and outright false statements about health measures, vaccines, public officials, and coronavirus facts and data serves to dissuade Americans from getting immunized and following basic CDC guidance, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and limiting gatherings -- all measures necessary to get the country out of this pandemic.
As MSNBC’s Ari Melber explained, the often deployed technique of just “asking questions” about vaccines amounts to “concern trolling,” and the politicization of so much of coronavirus science on Fox highlights the network’s “bad faith partisan attacks” on pandemic response under the Biden administration.
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