Opinions as Facts

Leonardo Bursztyn, University of Chicago, Aakaash Rao, Harvard University, Christopher Roth, University of Cologne, and David Yanagizawa-Drott, University of Zurich

The rise of opinion programs has transformed television news. Because they present anchors’ subjective commentary and analysis, opinion programs often convey conflicting narratives about reality. We experimentally document that people across the ideological spectrum turn to opinion programs over “straight news,” even when provided large incentives to learn objective facts. We then examine the consequences of diverging narratives between opinion programs in a high-stakes setting: the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. We find stark differences in the adoption of preventative behaviors among viewers of the two most popular opinion programs, both on the same network, which adopted opposing narratives about the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. We then show that areas with greater relative viewership of the program downplaying the threat experienced a greater number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Our evidence suggests that opinion programs may distort important beliefs and behaviors.