In an open letter to Fox News heads Rupert Murdoch and Lachlan Murdoch, a group of 74 professors of journalism and journalists have called the network’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic a “danger to public health”.
The letter says that Fox News is endangering its own viewers, the average age of whom is 65, making them one of the two most at-risk groups to experience complications if they contract the virus.
“Viewers of Fox News, including the president of the United States, have been regularly subjected to misinformation relayed by the network—false statements downplaying the prevalence of Covid-19 and its harms; misleading recommendations of activities that people should undertake to protect themselves and others, including casual recommendations of untested drugs; false assessments of the value of measures urged upon the public by their elected political leadership and public health authorities,” the letter says.
It continues: “The misinformation that reaches the Fox News audience is a danger to public health. Indeed, it is not an overstatement to say that your misreporting endangers your own viewers—and not only them, for in a pandemic, individual behaviour affects significant numbers of other people as well.”
Fox News is regularly named as one of the most trusted networks in America, and so polling cited in the letter is particularly disturbing given the average age of the viewership. A Pew Research poll said that 79 per cent of Fox News viewers said that they believed the media had exaggerated the risks of the virus, while 63 per cent said they thought the virus only posed a minor threat to the health of the country.
While the signatories of the letter acknowledge that Fox News reporters have done some solid reporting, and that increasingly screen time is being given to more medical and public health professionals. However, this is being lost by the network not distinguishing between the authority of an expert and the authority of a pundit or politician out of ideological loyalty.
Presenters who were called out by name include Sean Hannity for saying that Democrats and the media were inflating the dangers to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax”, and Steve Hilton for saying that accurate representations of the virus were “our ruling class and their TV mouthpieces — whipping up fear over this virus.”
Tucker Carlson was also mentioned for his touting of a “flimsy” French study about the effectiveness of two drugs in treating the coronavirus. The next day the president referred to “very, very encouraging early results” from the drugs and called a third drug a “game changer.”
“The basic purpose of news organisations is to discover and tell the truth. This is especially necessary, and obvious, amid a public health crisis. Television bears a particular responsibility because even more millions than usual look there for reliable information,” the letter adds.
It concludes: “Inexcusably, Fox News has violated elementary canons of journalism. In so doing, it has contributed to the spread of a grave pandemic. Urgently, therefore, in the name of both good journalism and public health, we call upon you to help protect the lives of all Americans—including your elderly viewers—by ensuring that the information you deliver is based on scientific facts.”
On Thursday there were more than 226,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the US and over 5,300 deaths.