The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How much of right-wing opposition to vaccination was Fox News’s fault?

A health-care worker administers a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine at a senior living facility in Worcester, Pa., on Aug. 25, 2021. (Hannah Beier/Bloomberg News)

Katie Lane’s father, Patrick, died of covid-19 in the summer of 2021. Hundreds of thousands of Americans did, of course, but Lane believes that her father was among the estimated 234,000 people whose deaths could have been prevented had he been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Asked during an interview on CNN why she thought her father chose not to get a dose of the vaccine, Lane suggested that there were a number of factors, media consumption included.

“He watched some Tucker Carlson videos on YouTube, and some of those videos involved some misinformation about vaccines,” Lane said, “and I believe that that played a role.”

New research suggests that Patrick Lane was probably not the only consumer of the Fox News host’s rhetoric to turn away from being vaccinated. And, therefore, he was probably not the only one to die of covid-19 who might otherwise have lived.

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We’ve known for some time that there is a partisan divide in vaccine uptake. A lot of attention has been paid to the divide in vaccination rates by race — often because pointing at lower vaccination rates among Black Americans is used as a bit of whataboutism to rationalize low vaccination rates among Republicans. But research has consistently shown that White Republicans are far less likely than Black Americans to report having been vaccinated, and far, far less likely than White Democrats.

Research published this month found a correlation between partisanship and rates of excess deaths during the pandemic. In places where vaccine uptake was lower — which correlates to support for President Donald Trump in the 2020 general election — Republicans died at a much higher rate than they did before the pandemic, a gap that primarily emerged in the months after the vaccine became widely available.

But why? What made Republicans less likely to get vaccinated?

In part, we can point to the interplay of partisanship itself. As president, Trump tried to play down the danger of the virus and, with an eye to reelection, cast efforts to contain the virus as power plays from an overbearing government. This certainly helped influence behaviors among Republicans on vaccination, masking and social distancing.

Research published last week, though, identifies a likely role for another prominent voice on the political right: Fox News.

“Our results show that Fox News is reducing COVID-19 vaccination uptake in the United States, with no evidence of the other major networks having any effect,” the study from researchers at ETH Zurich concluded. “[T]here 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 vaccination hesitancy.”

Tracking vaccinations from March to June 2021 shows markedly lower rates of vaccinations among Fox News viewers under 65, particularly in May — the month after vaccinations were opened up to all adults.

Recognizing that Fox News’s audience is heavily Republican, the researchers worked to extricate partisanship from their analysis — with success.

“We can rule out that the effect is due to differences in partisanship, to local health policies, or to local COVID-19 infections or death rates,” the study’s authors write. “The other two major television networks, CNN and MSNBC, have no effect.”

So what was happening on Fox News in the period being studied? Well, for one thing, Fox News was discussing the vaccines less often than its main competitors. During April and in the first two weeks of May, the word “vaccine” was mentioned about twice as often on CNN as on Fox News and substantially more on MSNBC.

During the period of the study, there was one Fox News show in the top 10 shows mentioning 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-year-old demographic.

What was Carlson saying about the vaccine in May 2021? See for yourself. But it included his elevation of inaccurate numbers about purported deaths from coronavirus vaccines and touting the idea that natural immunity was as effective as vaccination — ignoring, of course, the risk posed by reaching natural immunity. Carlson played host to covid-vaccine opponent Alex Berenson more than once. (Berenson’s shaky grasp of the data had already earned him the apt title “the pandemic’s wrongest man.”)

So the show that was most popular among those under 65 on Fox News was making ceaseless false claims about the vaccine or playing down its efficacy during a period when Fox News viewers under 65 were demonstrably less likely to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The Department of Health and Human Services last week reported that vaccinations probably saved 330,000 lives among Medicare recipients in 2021. Most of them are 65 and over, the group most likely to get vaccinated.

When he died, Patrick Lane was 45.