Medill professors sign open letter condemning Fox News for misleading coronavirus coverage

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A screenshot of the Medium post.

Daisy Conant, Assistant Campus Editor

Thirteen Medill professors signed an open letter to Fox Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch and Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch, urging Fox News to stop misinforming the public about the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The letter, penned by Columbia Journalism School professor Todd Gitlin, criticizes Fox News’ coverage and discussion of COVID-19. In spite of past “solid reporting,” it stated, Fox News downplayed the prevalence of the virus and promoted misleading recommendations of “protective” activities and untested drugs.

“Inexcusably, Fox News has violated elementary canons of journalism. In so doing, it has contributed to the spread of a grave pandemic,” the letter reads. “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.”

The statement has garnered over 175 signatures from journalism professors and professionals around the world. Among them is Medill Prof. Patty Loew, who said her concerns with Fox News’ reporting are based on the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has on people of color, especially those of her own indigenous community.

Loew said she was specifically troubled by the tone of Fox News on-air personalities, including commentator Sean Hannity, who frequently claimed the pandemic was over-politicized or a “hoax.”

“Misinformation affects people of color, who disproportionately are represented in service industries and entry-level positions and often lack access to health care,” Loew said. “When Fox viewers are encouraged to dismiss health warnings and refuse to adhere to social distance protocols, it puts workers of color at a higher risk.”

Her consternation for the impact of Fox’s reporting is backed up by data mentioned in the letter. According to the letter, a YouGov/Economist poll conducted this March found that Americans who pay the most attention to Fox News are much less likely than others to say they are worried about the coronavirus. Additionally, a poll released April 1 by the Pew Research Center found that 79 percent of Fox News viewers surveyed believed the media had exaggerated the risks of COVID-19, while 63 percent said they believed the virus posed a minor threat to the health of the country.

Medill Prof. J.A. Adande, who signed the statement, noted that while he normally wouldn’t see it as his place to dictate how a news organization conducts its coverage, “information is vital right now and misinformation can be deadly.”

For example, the letter cites that just one day after Fox talk show host Tucker Carlson publicized a French study on the use of two drugs to treat COVID-19, President Donald Trump announced the drugs show “very, very encouraging early results,” despite concerns of the validity of the research from the medical community.

“To willingly ignore the data scientists when the medical professionals are paid for the sake of making an agenda is dangerous and can cost thousands of lives,” Adande said.

By not apologizing for and correcting misinformation on COVID-19, Medill Prof. Jon Marshall said that Fox has violated the “cardinal rules of journalism”: seeking the truth to report and minimizing harm. He noted that Fox should attempt to leave the politics and pundits out of their reporting, instead making sure that they are digging deeply into what the best scientific information available is, taking their time to verify it and report it.

Despite the troubling spread of misinformation, Marshall added he’s also seen “excellent reporting” on the struggles of healthcare workers and the economic impact on society’s most vulnerable members.

“Journalists are playing an absolutely essential role during this crisis, to provide information to the public and also to humanize what is happening to all sorts of segments of society,” Marshall said. “In times of crisis, the importance of quality journalism is never more important.”

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Twitter: @daisy_conant

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