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Doctors blame right-wing media for eroding trust during pandemic

Demoralized physicians say patients are being infected by Covid-19 conspiracy theories.
Image: A man in a mask, in shadow, watches a stage set showing a man in a MAGA hat being interviews by a newscaster surrounded by trees and happy children as cameras record them.
Michael Kennedy / for NBC News

Doctors say they’re facing increased skepticism and pushback from patients over Covid-19 treatments. They and researchers attribute this to skeptical and misinformed coverage of the pandemic, which often amplify President Donald Trump's misstatements.

“The right-wing media and President Trump eroded faith and trust in scientists and in actual data during this pandemic, so now we’re left at the end of December with this terrible surge in hospitalizations," Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor at the University of California, San Francisco, who specializes in treating HIV, told NBC News.

One published academic analysis found that from Feb. 1 to March 23, right-leaning outlets had published nearly 4,000 stories with misinformation about Covid-19 compared with mainstream outlets, which had about 1,500. The researchers also found that "right-leaning media viewers are more than twice as likely to endorse Covid-related misinformation."

As a result, based on polling data, these misinformed individuals are "significantly more likely to believe that the CDC is exaggerating the health risks of the virus," the researchers wrote.

Multiple working academic papers have also found a correlation between Fox News’ coverage of the pandemic, which was skeptical of the virus and downplayed the risks, and less stringent adherence to social distancing and Covid-19 safety measures by viewers.

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"This information is reaching very large swaths of the population," said Jean-Pierre Dubé, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who contributed to this research. "Fox News has become not only the dominant TV source of news but it's also becoming increasingly the largest online source."

Right-wing media sites have proliferated during Trump's tenure, but Fox News remains the biggest by a significant margin. On Wednesday, it released its year-end ratings marking its fifth consecutive year as the most-watched cable network.

Fox News declined to comment on the record, but a spokesperson provided the same statement issued at the time the studies drew coverage.

"Fox News has been covering the threat of COVID-19 since mid-January and was among the first networks to spotlight both the severity of the virus and to warn the American public that cases would skyrocket into the hundred thousand range," the statement says. "These cherry-picking studies blatantly ignore key moments of our pandemic coverage and are nothing more than a transparent PR stunt by organizations seeking media attention.”

Pew Research Center surveys showed people whose main news source was Fox News had less accurate knowledge of the pandemic, were more likely to think the media exaggerated its risks and felt the president’s messaging about the pandemic was accurate.

But Fox News isn't alone. In November, One America News Network, a far-right cable news network founded in 2013 that doesn't subscribe to Nielsen ratings, was suspended from YouTube for posting content that contained coronavirus misinformation. Popular right-wing talk radio host Alex Jones was warned by the Food and Drug Administration to stop making false claims about the disease or face legal action. OANN and Jones did not respond to a request for comment.

And a galaxy of online accounts, message boards, blogs and thinly sourced online sites feed into the mix, helping push misinformation into the news feeds of users, reporters and newsmakers.

Matthew Sheffield, a former conservative activist, said right-leaning outlets “took their cues from President Donald Trump,” who drove misinformation in public statements and on Twitter, and has continued to downplay the severity of the virus regardless of the increasing numbers of positive cases and deaths.

The White House disagrees.

"Throughout this pandemic, President Trump’s goal has been saving lives, which is why he has followed the science and championed not only vaccines, but also therapeutics, such as antibodies," said Brian Morgenstern, White House deputy press secretary and deputy communications director.

Since March, there have been over 16 million Covid-19 cases in the U.S., and cases continue to rise. Sheffield said that by attacking scientists as “elites'' with ulterior motives, conservatives have helped to erode trust in the medical profession and seed the ground for skepticism over coronavirus treatment and preventive measures.

“When you have this idea propagated widely in conservatism that scientists are not pursuing neutral, objective research but have nefarious evil motives, then why would you believe them when they tell you that wearing a mask is good for stopping the spread of a disease?” Sheffield said.

Patients are also more confused and uncertain because they've had to juggle evolving recommendations from the real-time reaction to the virus. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, has changed his guidance as new facts have come to light.

“There are a lot of questions about where did this science suddenly come from,” said Dr. Amber Hardeman, who specializes in internal medicine and pediatrics at Tulane University School of Medicine. “They think everything was just made up over the last couple months since Covid has only been going on for nine months or so.”

“When you’re in the midst of a crisis, you see people clinging onto those messages that are spoken with certainty, which are often not very scientific messages because scientists speak with uncertainty because the world is uncertain,” said Dr. Seema Yasmin, a clinical assistant professor at Stanford University.

But doctors say this desire for certainty leaves their patients more vulnerable, especially in regions where medical deserts, areas with limited access to good health care, overlap with news deserts, areas where local news outlets have been decimated.

“Those folks get a double whammy," Yasmin said. "They’re more vulnerable to disease but more vulnerable to disinformation about disease as well."

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Because of all the misinformation circulating about Covid-19, some patients are flat out refusing to be tested even if they're at higher risk for severe complications, according to Dr. Cornea Khan, an obstetrics and gynecology resident in Queens, New York.

“We explain it’s for their benefit and the answer is still no," she said. "It’s quite frustrating to treat somebody who’s distrustful of the care that we’re providing to them. ... They have their beliefs about it and we have to kind of fight against that. It's making our jobs really hard."

Doctors say the distrust is taking a "demoralizing" toll.

“I feel like I’m having to explain away conspiracy theories and such much more often,” said Dr. Nicole Theodoropoulos, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “I’ve had some patients say straight to my face that they don’t believe in Covid, that they heard doctors are making it up."

“It’s left health care workers feeling very disenfranchised because it’s seemed that the public was against us in some sense,” Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, said. “The right-wing media and the president are bedfellows. They’re spokespeople of each other so they amplify each other’s messages [making them] more widespread and mainstream. The burden of all of these months of anti-science rhetoric has really affected so many of us.”