Fox News peddled misinformation about the coronavirus 253 times in five days: study

Laura Ingraham was single-handedly responsible for about a quarter of the misleading claims, averaging 12 per show

Published July 17, 2020 11:32PM (EDT)

Advertisements featuring Fox News personalities, including Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity, adorn the front of the News Corporation building, (Getty Images/Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Advertisements featuring Fox News personalities, including Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity, adorn the front of the News Corporation building, (Getty Images/Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A new study finds that Fox News peddled misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic 253 times in only five days. The documented instances included claims which undermined science and faith in experts, as well as demands that schools and businesses reopen at the risk of public health.

Primetime host Laura Ingraham, who has no medical or scientific background whatsoever, led the pack with about a quarter of the claims — 63 total, or just more than 12 per show. Additionally, the network's "straight news" programs contributed about 35% of the misinformation.

The study, published Thursday by media watchdog Media Matters for America, was conducted from July 6 to 10 — the week after a Yahoo News report proclaimed that Fox's coronavirus coverage had taken a "remarkable turn" for the better.

However haltingly and incompletely, the president's favorite news outlet has started to acknowledge, across various programs and its news site, that the coronavirus is a far graver threat than even [President Donald] Trump himself will acknowledge.

That report cited two articles on the network's website and two instances of Fox News personalities Sean Hannity and Steve Doocy making remarks about masks that, while stopping short of endorsements, did not mock them outright.

The article also pointed out that Fox News requires its employees to wear masks at work most of the time. Additionally, the network appears to have canceled a Fox Nation show about the pandemic hosted by coronavirus conspiracy theorist Alex Berenson, though extant episodes remain available.

The data in the Media Matters study flatly contradicts the isolated examples from the Yahoo report. Here is a quick breakdown:

  • About half the incidents — 115 claims — challenged scientific consensus and undermined official government recommendations, such as social distancing and masking guidelines.
  • "The Ingraham Angle" was the clear leader of the pack, pushing misinformation 63 times, more than half of which came from Ingraham herself, who undermined science a staggering 21 times in five days.
  • "Fox & Friends" took second place with 45 instances; "Hannity" and "Tucker Carlson Tonight" finished in a dead heat for third, clocking 21 and 20 instances, respectively.
  • Straight news programs delivered more than a third of the misinformation, led by Martha MacCallum's "The Story" with 20 claims.
  • Eight claims defended or endorsed unproven remedies such as hydroxychloroquine, days after the FDA told people not to take it outside of hospitals or clinical trials.
  • The network politicized the pandemic 63 times, including 51 claims that regulations requiring masks and closing businesses were rooted in politics and 10 false claims linking recent racial justice protests to a surge in new infections.
  • Hosts advocated 34 times to disregard public health concerns in favor of reopening the country's more than 100,000 K-12 schools.

The misinformation and the seeming coordination with official White House talking points has raised alarm among experts.

For instance, in a "Hannity" interview July 10, the last day covered in the study, Trump responded to a question about the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, by saying "he's made a lot of mistakes."

That interview fed an ongoing White House effort to discredit Fauci, who pushed back by calling such efforts "bizarre."

"Ultimately, it hurts the president," he said.

Then there is the matter of schools. The network and the administration, including Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, for weeks trumpeted an American Academy of Pediatrics statement advising a measured reopening of schools. 

The misinformation's momentum eventually compelled the academy — together with with the two largest educators' unions in the country and the School Superintendents Association — to clarify its statement. It now says that reopening "will clearly require substantial new investments in our schools and campuses," and calls on Congress and the administration "to provide the federal resources needed" to safely educate and care for students.

In an earlier Media Matters audit of the cable network, Fox News posted a 20% decline in its coronavirus coverage between March and May.

But this unrelenting misinformation campaign comes amid a massive surge in COVID-19 infections, which has ravaged healthcare resources in Sun Belt states such as Arizona, California, Florida and Texas. In recent weeks, the U.S. has set seven records for daily new cases, topping 68,000 on July 10, the same day which Trump, who said on numerous occasions that the virus would "miraculously" disappear in April, told Hannity that Fauci had "made a lot of mistakes."

Now, many states are walking back reopening measures. California closed restaurants, movie theaters and bars. Arizona also shuttered movie theaters and bars, plus gyms and water parks.

On July 13, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs wondered "what in hell is going on" as closures increased. Dr. Marc Siegel, a Fox medical expert, criticized the policies as "not consistent," "punitive" and "draconian."

However, there are some fractures within the network. A study from April showed that viewers of Hannity were more likely to die of COVID-19 than Carlson's viewers. Now, the two seem neck-and-neck in misinformation.

Carlson, who in June broke Hannity's all-time ratings record, recently claimed there was "no evidence" that masks help constrain the pandemic, in contradiction of guidance from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hannity, meanwhile, took the opposite view.

"I went to my grocery store every week. Guess what?" the host recently asked. "They wore masks. Nobody at my grocery store, thank God, got coronavirus."

"I think they work," he added.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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