How much of the right-wing opposition to vaccination was Fox News’ fault?
“He watched videos of Tucker Carlson on YouTube, and some of those videos involved misinformation about vaccines,” Lane said, “and I think that played a role.”
New research suggests that Patrick Lane probably wasn’t the only consumer of the Fox News host’s rhetoric to turn away from vaccinations. And, therefore, he probably wasn’t the only one to die of covid-19 who might otherwise have lived.
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We have known for some time that there is a supporter divide in taking vaccines. Much attention has been paid to dividing vaccination rates by race – often because pointing the finger at lower vaccination rates among black Americans is used as a bit of a whim to rationalize low vaccination rates among the Republicans. But research has consistently shown that white Republicans are much less likely than black Americans to report having been vaccinated, and much, much less likely than white Democrats.
Research published this month found a correlation between partisanship and excessive death rates during the pandemic. In places where vaccine uptake was lower — which correlates with support for President Donald Trump in the 2020 general election — Republicans died at a much higher rate than before the pandemic, a gap that is mostly appeared in the months after the vaccine became widely available.
But why? What made Republicans less likely to get vaccinated?
In part, we can highlight the interaction of partisanship itself. As president, Trump has tried to play down the danger of the virus and, in view of his re-election, has made efforts to contain the virus as power plays into an authoritarian government. It certainly helped influence Republican behaviors around vaccinations, masking, and social distancing.
A study published last week, however, identifies a likely role for another prominent voice on the political right: Fox News.
“Our results show that Fox News reduces vaccination against COVID-19 in the United States, without any evidence that the other major networks have an effect,” concluded the study by researchers from ETH Zurich. “[T]there is an association between areas with higher Fox News viewership and lower vaccinations,” noting that “media emphasis on minority viewpoints against scientific consensus is linked to reluctance to vaccination “.
Vaccination tracking from March to June 2021 shows significantly lower vaccination rates among Fox News viewers under 65, particularly in May – the following month vaccinations have been opened to all adults.
Recognizing that Fox News’ audience is heavily Republican, the researchers worked to extract partisanship from their analysis — with success.
“We can rule out that the effect is due to differences in partisanship, local health policies, or local COVID-19 infections or death rates,” the study authors write. “The other two major television networks, CNN and MSNBC, have no effect.”
So what was happening on Fox News in the period studied? Well, for one thing, Fox News talked about vaccines less often than its major competitors. In April and the first two weeks of May, the word “vaccine” was mentioned about twice as often on CNN as on Fox News and significantly more on MSNBC.
During the study period, there was one Fox News show in the top 10 shows that mentioned the word “vaccine” most often on cable news: Tucker Carlson’s.
In May 2021, Carlson’s was the second most watched prime time show on cable news – but most watched in the 25 to 54 age demographic.
What was Carlson saying about the vaccine in May 2021? See for yourself. But that included his elevation of inaccurate figures on presumed deaths from coronavirus vaccines and boasting the idea that natural immunity was as effective as vaccination – ignoring, of course, the risk posed by the impairment of natural immunity. Carlson has hosted covid-vaccine opponent Alex Berenson more than once. (Berenson’s fragile understanding of the data had already earned him the apt title “The Baddest Man Alive in the Pandemic”.)
So the most popular under-65 show on Fox News consistently misrepresented the vaccine or downplayed its effectiveness during a time when Fox News viewers under 65 were demonstrably less likely to get vaccinated against coronavirus.
The Department of Health and Human Services last week reported that vaccinations likely saved 330,000 lives among Medicare beneficiaries in 2021. Most of them are 65 and older, the group most likely to get vaccinated.
On his death, Patrick Lane was 45 years old.