Lin November, the WEAR TV news station in North Florida aired a segment about Dr. Benjamin Marble, a local physician who set up a free telehealth website offering consultations for Covid-19. Marble, the reporter said, had made it so “patients do not have to pay a cent” for coronavirus treatment and thought his site could replace Obamacare.
To the average viewer, the segment on ABC’s subsidiary, owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, was a local news report announcing a local service. What the report did not mention, however, is that Marble is a member of America’s Frontline Doctors, a right-wing political group that became known in the summer of 2020 after some of its members appeared in a viral video announcing unproven Covid-19 treatments as miracle cure.
AFD’s founder, Dr. Simone Gold, has been in charge of anti-vaccine meetings and is facing charges of storming the Capitol during the riots on 6 January. Also visible in a picture included in the WEAR TV clip was Dr. Stella Immanuel, an AFD member who has claimed that masks do not help slow down the spread of Covid-19 and repeatedly said that some diseases in the real world were caused by people who had sex in their dreams with demons and witches. Marble’s telehealth page links to anti-vaccine information and websites promoting unproven Covid-19 treatments, such as the antiparasitic drug ivermectin.
Since the start of the pandemic, local newspapers, television and radio stations throughout the United States have been among the most popular sources of information about Covid-19. Many anti-vaccine activists, as well as doctors and groups promoting unproven Covid-19 treatments, have turned to the same channels to spread their message.
Prominent disseminators of medical disinformation, including Dr. Joseph Mercola, who has been identified by misinformation researchers as one of the most prolific online promoters of anti-vaccine counterfeits, and members of the Children’s Health Defense Organization – anti-vaccine activist Robert F Kennedy Jr.’s group – has appeared on local radio programs or published editorials in local newspapers promoting conspiracy theories about vaccine safety.
Although local businesses lack the audience size of national broadcasters or newspapers, researchers say they can give a veneer of legitimacy to fringe groups and reinforce their message. Americans have a greater degree of confidence in Covid-19 information from local media compared to news media in general, found a Pew research survey from 2020. And even a short segment or article on local news can have a different life on social media platforms where anti-wax groups and proponents of dubious Covid-19 treatments largely promote their content.
“You get someone to grab something from an obscure website that looks like a newspaper, post it on Facebook, and pretty quickly take over the Facebook algorithm,” said Penny Abernathy, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School and author of several books on the news industry. .
Anti-waxers are drilling into local media
The United States has a diverse and large local news landscape that includes radio stations, print and digital newspapers, each with their own vulnerabilities to the spread of anti-vaccine stories.
Some local news outlets have spread Covid-19 misinformation out of what appears to be a lack of resources or expertise to cover health and science issues, researchers say. Over the past 15 years, more than half of the journalists working in local American media have lost their jobs, and more than a quarter of American newspapers have shut down. During the pandemic alone, more than 90 local newsrooms were forced to shut down. This has meant that many local businesses operate with skeletal staff.
The loss of editorial experts is particularly notable in covering areas such as health and science, which require a high degree of scientific skill and specific expertise to accurately explain complex studies and research.
“One constantly hears stories of big government businesses that once had 400 in a newsroom and are now down to 50,” Abernathy said. “There used to be three people who were responsible for covering health, and now there is only one person who is responsible for covering, if you are lucky, not just health, but a number of other things.”
The format of local news, with its firm adherence to the appearance of neutrality, can also create openings for misinformation. In some cases, anti-vaccine activists have been given the same amount of time as opposing voices during television coverage of vaccinations – as was the case in a local NBC News San Diego report last November that provided airtime for a declared anti-wax vaccine. organization for a segment on “Mixed reactions to Covid-19 vaccine.” The result was a false equivalence between the two sides that presented anti-vaccine activists as a conflicting view, rather than exposing their medical misinformation. NBC News San Diego did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s an old tradition in journalism to get both sides of the story, and unfortunately that tradition has led a little too far into the scientific coverage domain,” said Rick Weiss, director of SciLine, an organization that connects journalists with scientists and is based . out of the non-profit American Association for the Advancement of Science. “But when there’s just overwhelming evidence that something is true and other things are not true, it’s not the time to give equal coverage.”
Politically motivated media move in
Other local news outlets have made a concerted effort to promote anti-vaccine stories or help spread information about unproven treatments.
Conservative radio hosts and right-wing websites targeting local news consumers have repeatedly promoted anti-vaccine views to their audiences. Many of these radio programs are broadcast on multiple stations and are available online through platforms such as the iHeartRadio network.
Radio host Joshua Lane has hosted fawning interviews with several anti-vaccine activists in recent months, including Robert F Kennedy Jr. and other members of his organization. Lane’s show airs on five AM and FM stations in several states, including ABC News Radio affiliated station KMET in Los Angeles. Lane has called Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine organization an “excellent organization that does some very good work.” Lane did not respond to a Guardian request for comment.
Meanwhile, a number of local news sites such as Washington State’s Clark County Today, Atlanta Business Journal and California’s The Desert Review have published content from prominent anti-vaccine groups or proponents of unproven Covid-19 treatments. Although they have harmless names that mimic traditional local news media, their content often promotes anti-vaccine views or promotes Covid-19 conspiracy theories. Researchers have come to call these types of organizations “pink slime” stores, and they have become a growing part of the media landscape in recent years..
“The problem that arises with this is that they do not have the same journalistic standards – many of them have a specific political agenda for them,” Abernathy said.
In a post from early October, Clark County Today, which was founded by David Madore, a wealthy Republican donor who has bankrolled local candidates in Washington State, republished an article from the anti-vaccine Children’s Health Defense in its entirety. Another article on the site covers local support for a medical assistant that the state Medical Commission suspended in October for speaking out for ivermectin, but does not mention allegations that he tried to bully local hospital staff to prescribe the drug and spread medical misinformation that resulted in suspension.
In a lengthy response, Clark County Todays editor Ken Vance told the Guardian that the site’s coverage of the pandemic was informed of the “one-sided” approach from “mainstream news media, social media and even Big Tech.” He added that the site does not seek to shape readers’ personal decisions about vaccinations, and has published “endless information on vaccinations, treatment and other Covid-related issues, enabling elected officials, government leaders and medical health providers to inform society”. But, he added, “these sources are constantly refusing to address issues themselves such as the adverse effects of vaccinations, alternative treatments for Covid, and even preventative measures that can be taken to strengthen one’s immune system.”
But health experts argue that promoting unproven treatments or framing the effectiveness of vaccination as a debate is a way for anti-vaccine advocates to advance their cause. Anti-waxers also rely on out-of-context anecdotes and demonstrably false arguments, a doctor told the Guardian in their attempt to contest well-documented research and medical science.
The Desert Review, whose publisher has shared pro-Trump conspiracy theories on Facebook, has published a series of pro-ivermectin articles by an author who writes under a pseudonym and makes allegations of a pharmaceutical conspiracy against the drug. They are often shared in social media groups that promote the drug and are listed as the most popular articles on the site. In October, the site posted a festive message on Facebook, in which it highlighted that one of its ivermectin articles had been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
The Desert Review and WEAR-TV news did not respond to requests for comment.
This article was modified on November 3, 2021. The group was founded by Robert F Kennedy Jr. called the Children’s Health Defense, not the Children’s Defense Fund, which is a completely separate organization focusing on child poverty.