The most anticipated media trial in recent years ended with a $787.5 million settlement, and while it had the opportunity to set the tone for future defamation litigation, Virginia Tech media expert Megan Duncan says the outcome will have little impact on the perceived credibility of Fox News.  

“Few people are willing to reassess their perceptions of the credibility of Fox News — whether they side with the news organization or believe it was in the wrong — because politically active people associate partisan news brands with their political identity,” Duncan says. She explains that most partisans in the U.S. had long ago made up their minds about whether Fox News was a credible news source.  

Dominion had been seeking $1.6 billion in damages. The company argued that its business had been hurt by 2020 election conspiracy theories advanced on Fox shows even though hosts, producers, and executives at the network knew they were false.

“The size of this settlement and rulings by the judge before jury selection that Fox News had published falsehoods about Dominion Voting Systems will remain in the headlines ,” Duncan says. “That scrutiny, coupled with the public pre-trial evidence has the potential to move the needle of perceived credibility for the small portion of people who were ambivalent and hadn’t made up their minds about the claims.”

Duncan points out that Fox News is the most-watched cable news network. Even still, it reaches only about 18 percent of the U.S. in the average month, according to Pew Research Center. Far more people — about half — are watching their local television news, which enjoys high levels of news trust. “Tuning into credible, ethical news increases local engagement and participation in democracy and audiences should hold the news they watch to high standards of verification and accuracy,” Duncan explains.

To people who already thought Fox News  was acting unethically, Duncan says this settlement is more in evidence. To loyal Fox News audiences, she says they might reason this was just a quicker resolution to bogus claims. “Past research finds that corrections and fact-checks on incorrect information only moves opinions a little and that the false information can “echo” across time.” That means while an audience member knows the original information was found to be false, that person still takes into account the false information in future decision making. “To the extent that this settlement can be seen as a correction, I imagine the original claims made by Fox News will linger in the audience’s memory for years to come,” Duncan says.

About Duncan

Megan Duncan is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at Virginia Tech. Her research focuses on how partisans judge the credibility of and engage with the news. Using survey-embedded experiments, surveys, and other quantitative methods, she’s interested in knowing more about audiences, their perceptions of the news, how they form opinions, and how to use this knowledge to make democracy stronger.  

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