Journalism School professors joined their peers across the nation in writing and circulating an open letter to the owners of Fox News that urged the TV channel to stop the spread of “misinformation” and “false statements” regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite some “solid reporting” done by the channel, the letter refers to two separate instances of “misinformation” surrounding the pandemic and its effects on viewers, specifically President Donald Trump. In one instance, it cites how just one day after Fox talk show host Tucker Carlson brought up a French study on the use of two drugs to treat COVID-19, President Trump said that the drugs show “very, very encouraging early results,” despite uncertainty surrounding the study.
The letter also cited a YouGov/Economist poll conducted from March 15 to 17, which reported that Americans who pay the most attention to Fox News are less likely than viewers of other channels to say that they are worried about the coronavirus. According to the letter, the average age of Fox News viewers is 65, a demographic that is at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, 31 percent of cases and 80 percent of deaths associated with confirmed COVID-19 cases were among adults over 65 years of age, according to data released by the CDC.
“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 behavior affects significant numbers of other people as well,” read the letter addressed to Fox Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch and Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch.
Todd Gitlin, professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, helped draft the letter last weekend. The letter has since garnered over 100 signatures from professors across the United States, including places like UC Berkeley, Northwestern, and University of Maryland.
“I had a number of conversations with friends over the weekend, in the course of which I've realized … that Fox was not only damaging the cause of public health in general, but that they were also violating journalism canons. They were actually putting at risk their own viewers,” Gitlin said.
According to public health experts, inconsistent messaging and miscommunication have put young adults, who did not take early preventative measures like social distancing, at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
Gitlin believes that the open letter addresses how viewers of Fox News give authority indiscriminately to the people that they hear on the channel.
“When you throw a face up on the screen and the face declares something or other and then next you’re throwing up a doctor saying something … you are dangerously mudding the waters. You’re spreading rumours that are irresponsible and in fact potentially lethal,” Gitlin said.
Journalism professor Andie Tucher is among the dozen signatories from Columbia faculty. She is currently working on a book about the history of “fake news” in America and has researched the danger of misinformation. Though she stated that the network has done credible reporting, she cited its partisan nature as particularly harmful during this time of crisis.
“[Fox News] has some very serious respectable reporters, but it has always played a sort of game of purveying information that is partisan, that is political, that is intended to shape the partisan debate but calling it truthful,” Tucher said. “And in this case it is just too deadly to let that pass.”
Gitlin penned the original letter on Sunday and sent it to several journalists and journalism professors for suggestions and signatures. In less than a week, the letter went “viral,” Gitlin said, attributing this reaction to the letter’s exposure on Twitter and Gitlin’s work with the organization Protect Democracy. The letter was later published on Medium, with a form for journalists and professors to add their signatures.
In response to the open letter, Sean Hannity, a commentator on Fox News, told Newsweek on Thursday that he had “taken [the pandemic] seriously way before most in the media did.”
“They’re guilty of what they accuse me of. I said it in 2007: Journalism is dead,” Hannity said.
But for professors like Gitlin and Tucher, this is an important time for the profession and those who teach it. According to Gitlin, many of the responses that he received when the letter was sent out expressed not only support but also relief.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, a guideline for journalistic practices and standards, furthers that point, calling for journalists to “expose unethical conduct in journalism,” which Gitlin and professors across the United States have done.
“It seems to me important that a profession stands up for its standards, its principles, its ethics, just like every other credential profession does, so this is a service we can do to the public,” Tucher said. “Journalism is a public good and this is one way we can manifest that.”