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Your Source of News Can Determine Your Response to COVID-19

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Key Takeaways

  • The news you consume may have a direct impact on your views of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • News outlets deemed more liberal have provoked more cautious behavior in viewers than more conservative-leaning sources.
  • Some sources have rejected the advice of doctors and other experts, at times presenting counterfactual information that painted a flawed picture of the threat of the pandemic.

With various news sources competing for ratings in a rabid election year, conflicting views are quite common across TV news networks. As the threat of COVID-19 grew earlier this year, those conflicts even extended to the realm of public health, to the point that a person's reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic may have depended on their favorite source for news.

Research from BMJ Global Health explored responses to the pandemic based upon which news was consumed, finding that Fox News watchers, for example, had very different views of the pandemic than CNN viewers.

Fox News, which the study calls the largest cable news channel, appeared more likely to match their content to talking points that downplayed the severity of the crisis. CNN, which is the second-largest news channel, were more likely to follow the stricter guidance provided by scientists and health experts that urged caution.

According to the analysis: "Fox News consistently downplayed the lethality of the pandemic to match the Republican administration’s narrative. This politically driven narrative may have led their viewers to believe the pandemic was not as serious as the mainstream media claimed." The analysis includes Pew research, which states that 79% of Fox News viewers think that COVID-19 is being exaggerated, whereas 54% of CNN viewers and 35% of MSNBC viewers believe it is exaggerated.

Consistency of Messaging Matters 

These news strategies not only lead to differing views on the issue, but also to differing behaviors that can impact both personal and public health. A person who views the pandemic as a serious issue will be more likely to follow social distancing rules and wear a mask when around people outside their home. The reverse may hold true for folks who are consistently exposed to the opposite view.

Psychiatrist Rhonda Mattox explains that news sources that seemed to promote a less serious view of COVID-19 used a similar technique: repetition. She says that "certain non-evidence based messages" may nonetheless prove effective "because of the repetition of the message." She notes that this misinformation overload can lead someone to be more distrusting of evidence from other sources that they're exposed to less often.

Evolving Views May Appear Inconsistent, Untrustworthy

Since the outbreak began, CNN coverage closely followed advice from sources like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the World Health Organization, and the CDC, whose guidance has evolved with the most recent research into the virus. That evolution of information could be viewed by some as unreliable. Mask usage, for example, was not encouraged in the early stages, before becoming the standard guidance worldwide.

As the information provided by Fox News seemed more politically driven, it may have also been more rigid, unchanging, and repetitive, perhaps leading to greater viewer confidence in certain beliefs about mask usage, social distancing, and the nature of the virus itself. A consistent early refrain was that COVID-19 was no worse than the annual flu, which doesn't typically cause the country to shut down.

Rhonda Mattox, MD

This is a prime climate for those theories to thrive because there aren't any challenges.

— Rhonda Mattox, MD


Dr. Mattox points out that these vastly different views in COVID-19 messaging have further divided the country. Since the country has been isolated, there is less ability to gain new perspectives. “This is a prime climate for those theories to thrive because there aren't any challenges.” 

She says, "In other advanced countries, coronavirus has unified them. This has not been the case for the United States.” Pew Research points to three quarters of Americans feeling more divided now than they did prior to the outbreak.

Pew Research shows that education level can determine susceptibility to conspiracy theories. Mattox explains that this is because higher education often expands your worldview. She says, “Many times we are not exposed to differing views until we go to work or to college. Then we have a goal in mind of graduation or making money, so we don't run away from differing opinions as quickly because we must engage them in order to reach a desired goal. That said, otherwise we tend to work really hard to protect our worldview. We find information that supports our narrative.”

Your News Source May Depend on Your Worldview

That narrative, she states, can lead to sharing unsubstantiated or disproven news stories on social media. “Many times we block people who share differing views and surround ourselves with people who are like us or support our narrative. In fact, we watch news programs that are congruent with those beliefs and we change the channel more quickly when conflicting theories are presented. We go to churches that align with our politics. If it affirms our belief system, then most of us are more likely to affiliate with it and trust it.” The study also confirms that people "filter out" news that does not match their beliefs.

Escaping one’s microcosm could be the key to being more accepting to others’ views. Mattox explains that attendance at liberal arts colleges is declining, which may impact students' ability to expand their worldview. “We are seeing students robbed of the opportunity to critically engage within disciplines that warrant critical thinking and deeper analysis as well, and we may see more intuitive, gut-based, personality driven judgments on the rise. This elimination is not without consequence to our democracy and economy.”

Instead of looking at different news sources as an opportunity to be combative or dismissive, it can be beneficial to consider the information they present, what evidence they are emphasizing, and whether or not there is a political slant. Especially in the case of an ongoing global health crisis, adhering to science-backed guidelines is crucial to maintaining the health and safety of the public.

What This Means For You

Consuming news from a variety of credible sources can help provide a balanced view of the world, and allow you to make a nonpartisan decision on issues relating to COVID-19 such as mask usage, social distancing, and crowded indoor gatherings. Ultimately, public and personal health concerns should not be partisan issues, even as a contentious election year has turned many things needlessly political.

As a possible vaccine nears, it will be more important than ever to seek out news sources that reflect the latest facts from the scientists and doctors who have been working to bring the pandemic to an end.

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  1. Zhao E, Wu Q, Crimmins EM, Ailshire JA. Media trust and infection mitigating behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic in the USABMJ Glob Health. 2020;5(10):e003323. doi:10.1136/bmjgh-2020-003323

  2. Mordecai, M., 2020. Public Opinion About Coronavirus Is More Politically Divided In U.S. Than In Other Advanced Economies. [online] Pew Research Center.

  3. Pew Research Center. 25% in US see at least some truth in conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was planned. Updated July 24, 2020.