Last week, over 70 journalism professors nationwide signed a letter to Fox News criticizing their COVID-19 coverage and urging the network to stop spreading misinformation about the pandemic. Three University of Wisconsin professors signed the letter. 

The letter, written by Columbia Journalism School’s Todd Gitlin, claimed Fox News’ failure to portray the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic’s danger, as communicated by public health experts, as well as their spread of scientifically false information, proves the network has fallen short in their journalistic duties as a news organization. 

“Viewers of Fox News, including the president of the United States, have been regularly subjected to misinformation relayed by the network’s false statements downplaying the prevalence of COVID-19 and its harms,” the letter said. “The misinformation that reaches the Fox News audience is a danger to public health.”

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UW journalism professor Lewis Friedland said he signed the letter because as a journalist, he thinks Fox News acted irresponsibly, but also because he’s concerned about the safety of Fox News’ viewership, as someone with relatives who watch the network and no longer know how to respond to the pandemic. 

Friedland said lots of older people watch Fox News, and they’re also the population most at-risk from COVID-19. When news coverage tells this population that they don’t need to worry about the pandemic as much as the experts say, viewers might go outside and contract the virus, or they might spread the virus to others at risk.

“It’s nothing that even remotely resembles the way responsible journalists should work,” Friedland said. “I don’t care if you’re conservative or not. It’s not a question about your political orientation. It’s a question of not actively misinforming people who are vulnerable.” 

Friedland said in the past few days, the president and vice president have begun to take the pandemic more seriously, and as such, Fox News’ coverage has aligned more with experts like Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci. But Friedland also said these experts have said very similar things since the beginning of the virus outbreak, and Fox News should have listened from the start. 

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Friedland said while there’s nothing wrong with questioning public health experts on these issues, it’s still important to let experts on the scientific consensus take the stage, rather than deferring to the executive administration, like he said Fox News usually does. If they want to claim experts have overestimated the pandemic, Fox News should at least conduct a journalistic investigation, Friedland said.

“If you think that there’s some problem with that information, then it’s your obligation to go out systematically and carefully investigate whether there’s a problem, and to lay a proper journalistic foundation for questioning whether there’s a problem,” Friedland said. “In other words, are [experts] overestimating the effects of not isolating right now? Well that’s an empirical question. You go and you find out.” 

The other UW professors who signed Gitlin’s letter were Sue Robinson and Lucas Graves. They received the letter in a mass email sent to journalism professors around the country.