In the summer of 2020, mitigation efforts slowed the first US wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts warned, however, that without coordinated, sustained mitigation—such as testing and tracing, limited travel or gatherings, social distancing and mask wearing—the worst could lie ahead. A July survey found majority (59%) agreement with the expert warnings, while a minority (27%) mistakenly thought that the worst was behind us, or that COVID-19 was not a real problem. Among frequent Fox News and conservative talk radio consumers, however, large majorities (67–80%) held such false optimism or denial views, in contrast with small minorities (9–16%) among public radio and local television audiences. The impacts of news media choice were strongest among Republicans. Republicans who frequently watched Fox News were significantly more likely to express false optimism/denial views, whereas Republicans who watched a local TV station (ABC affiliate) or listened to public radio were significantly less likely to express false optimism/denial. News media choices had weaker effects on political Independents, however, and almost no effects on Democrats. These news media × party interactions suggest political asymmetry in the importance of “elite cues” for shaping COVID-19 perceptions. Unrealistic perceptions had real consequences: false optimism and denial correlate with lower support for mitigation steps, which worsened the pandemic.



Publication Date


Document Type



An earlier version of this article was published in Academia Letters, available online.