The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fox News’s dismissive vaccine coverage is particularly dangerous for its relatively old audience

But it’s tricky to blame the network for Republican skepticism

EMT Rachel Bryant administers a coronavirus vaccine to a man in the courtyard of the Midnight Mission in Los Angeles on Feb. 3. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

A few weeks ago, Fox News host Laura Ingraham did what she has done so often over the past year: scoffed at the danger posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

On that night, she was interviewing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). She played a snippet of an interview with a doctor warning that we could see the same pattern with infections that we saw last year: that during the heat of summer, new cases would surge in the Sun Belt and Florida.

“They just can’t let the pandemic go,” Ingraham said with faux amazement. “At some point, they’re going to have to break the addiction.”

DeSantis, predictably, agreed, dismissing the idea that his state was at risk. Since that appearance, his reelection campaign has even begun selling merchandise mocking pandemic restrictions. And since that appearance, the seven-day average of new coronavirus infections in his state has quadrupled.

Florida is also about in the middle of the pack on the percentage of adults who have been vaccinated, trailing the national percentage slightly. Of the five most populous states, it’s got the fourth-highest level of vaccinations, beating only Texas.

As in many other states — particularly ones with a higher density of Republican voters — the pace of vaccinations in Florida has slowed considerably over the past few months. And despite the obvious evidence that vaccinations can curtail new infections, Fox News’s hosts continue to stoke the idea that vaccinations are unnecessary or even dangerous. Ingraham and host Tucker Carlson have repeatedly hosted vaccine skeptics or stoked opposition to federal efforts to encourage vaccination.

It’s not that Fox News is constantly disparaging the vaccine, mind you. But even when the network’s hosts aren’t actively sowing skepticism about the vaccine, Fox News and Fox Business have been spending less time talking about the vaccine than their competitors.

But it is also the case that the network has repeatedly aired segments casting doubt on the vaccine. That Carlson is doing so is particularly problematic; he is Fox News’s prime-time star, regularly earning millions of viewers a night. Perhaps the daytime news anchors are offering insights into the utility of vaccination, like pointing out that hospitals keep reporting that their new patients are almost exclusively people who haven’t received a dose of a vaccine. But far fewer people will watch that than see Carlson and the skeptic-of-the-day riffing on how the vaccine might not even work.

This is particularly problematic because of who watches Fox News. On Wednesday, for example, Carlson had about 574,000 viewers in the target 25- to 54-year-old demographic, the demographic group most coveted by advertisers. But he had 3.2 million viewers overall — most of whom fell outside that age range. Maybe some of them are under the age of 25. Most, though, are clearly above the age of 54, often well above.

In 2019, the median age of a Fox News viewer was 65. In other words, a member of the group most at risk from the coronavirus.

Month after month, the vast majority of those who die of covid-19 are 65 or older, as data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate.

It’s also a group that, according to Pew Research Center polling, is more likely to use cable news as a key source of political news and to spend time watching Fox News in particular.

As that graph shows, though, it’s also the case that Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) are more likely to watch cable news and Fox News than are Democrats. There’s overlap between those two groups, older Americans and Republicans. Those born before 1965 are more likely to be Republican than Democrat; the opposite is true of younger Americans.

The critical question at the moment is whether Fox News’s skeptical coverage is spurring skepticism among its viewers, or whether Fox News’s opinion hosts are simply giving the audience what it wants. It’s a hard question to answer.

A direct correlation between skepticism and Fox viewership has been seen in some polls. Polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation in January found that, even then, people who planned to get the vaccine as soon as possible were less likely to say they had recently watched Fox than that they had recently watched CNN or MSNBC. Among those who said they definitely wouldn’t get vaccinated, a third also said they had recently watched Fox News.

While far fewer respondents said they watched far-right networks like One America News or Newsmax, those who said they would definitely not get vaccinated were about as likely to say they had watched one of those two networks as they had MSNBC.

A poll in March from PRRI and IFYC found a slightly different pattern. Among Republicans who said they got their news from Fox, skepticism about being vaccinated was only slightly higher than among Republicans who said they relied on mainstream sources — a larger group. Among viewers of far-right networks such as One America, vaccine skepticism was higher still.

“We don’t yet know whether Republicans are choosing their different media sources based on preexisting views, or whether the media sources are actively shaping those views,” PRRI’s Natalie Jackson wrote in an assessment of the poll for FiveThirtyEight. “It’s likely that both forces are at play.”

Again, it’s clear that Republicans, even at-risk older Republicans, are more skeptical about the need for vaccination. A poll conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News last month found that younger Republicans were more blasé about the vaccine and the risks posed by the virus. But older Republicans, those aged 50 and up, were more indifferent than that age group overall.

For example, more than 70 percent of those age 50 and over told us they had received a dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Among Republicans in that age range, only 54 percent had, a decline of more than 15 percentage points. At the same time, about 4 in 10 Republicans age 50 and over said they probably or definitely wouldn’t be vaccinated, compared to less than a quarter of people in that age range overall — a group that, of course, includes those Republican skeptics.

This skepticism among Republicans shows up in a variety of ways. An Economist-YouGov poll, for example, recently found that 27 percent of Republicans thought either that most new coronavirus infections were emerging among those who had been vaccinated or were cropping up equally among the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Another 27 percent said they weren’t sure.

Gallup polling released on Friday shows how views of science have shifted over the past few decades. In 1975, there wasn’t a big divide on how much confidence Americans placed in science. In its most recent survey, though, there was a 34-point split.

This is not a function of Fox News’s coverage of the vaccine, certainly. Confidence in institutions broadly has wavered over that same period, with partisan views varying on a number of points. The skepticism about vaccinations expressed by Fox News hosts is often less about the science than the idea that they are amplifying anti-elite or anti-expert views that are deeply rooted in Republican and conservative politics. It’s often not about the vaccine specifically but about the government telling you to do something.

Regardless of how much blame Fox News deserves for the reticence of Republicans on getting vaccinated, it’s clearly the case that its viewership is particularly at risk from the virus, making its standard anti-establishment riffs significantly more problematic.

On Friday morning, the hosts of Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” were discussing the vaccine. Guest co-host Lawrence Jones was flustered that Los Angeles County had reintroduced a mask mandate as cases there begin to rise.

“People are saying, why get the vaccine? If we are not going to return to normal anyway, what’s the use of doing it?” he asked. “Why?”

Co-host Steve Doocy responded bluntly.

“Well, you won’t die,” he said. “That’s a good reason.”

It was a much more useful message than Ingraham’s laughing dismissal of the risk. But then, of course, the show went on to disparage the decision in Los Angeles as confusing.