How Local Media Spreads Misinformation From Vaccine Skeptics

Facebook and other social media have been under scrutiny for vaccine misinformation, but local outlets have also sometimes been active.,

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The Freedom’s Phoenix, a local news site in Phoenix, and the Atlanta Business Journal, a news site in Atlanta, both published the same article about coronavirus vaccines in March.

The author was Joseph Mercola, who researchers and regulators have said is a top spreader of misleading Covid-19 information. In the article, Dr. Mercola inaccurately likened the vaccines to “gene therapy” and argued against their usefulness.

A month later, The Freedom’s Phoenix and the Atlanta Business Journal also published another article by Dr. Mercola. This time, he blamed the billionaire Bill Gates for the pandemic, claiming Mr. Gates had “shadow control” of the World Health Organization.

Facebook and other social platforms have in recent weeks attracted attention for vaccine misinformation, as Covid cases surge from the infectious Delta variant and vaccination rates slow. But The Freedom’s Phoenix and the Atlanta Business Journal are two small publications — along with dozens of radio and television stations, and podcasts aimed at local audiences — that have also become powerful conduits for anti-vaccine messaging, researchers said.

Dr. Mercola and other superspreaders of anti-vaccine content, who have been listed by the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate as the “Disinformation Dozen,” have appeared in articles in local publications or as guests on local radio shows and podcasts, according to a review by The New York Times. Some of their articles are regularly published by small-town newspapers or they are quoted as experts, The Times found.

Sherri Tenpenny, an osteopathic physician and vaccine skeptic, was recently on Coach Dave Live, a podcast in Ohio aimed at local audiences, misleadingly claiming that coronavirus vaccines disrupt people’s fertility. Christiane Northrup, a physician and anti-vaccine activist, showed up on the Lillian McDermott radio show in Florida and inaccurately said the vaccines would “change human DNA.” Ty Bollinger, another vaccine skeptic, was featured on News4 WSMV Nashville, an NBC-affiliated station in Tennessee, where he discussed why people should not get vaccinated.

Their appearances on local media can have an impact since Americans are more likely to believe what they read and hear from local news outlets. A 2019 Knight-Gallup study found that 45 percent of Americans trust reporting by local news organizations “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” compared with 31 percent for national news organizations.

“People think they are trusting their local news, something reliable and familiar, when in fact they are trusting misinformation,” said Rachel Moran, a fellow at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington. “It is a huge problem and growing.”

The Freedom’s Phoenix, the Atlanta Business Journal, Coach Dave Live, Lillian McDermott show and News4 WSMV did not return requests for comment.

In an email, Dr. Mercola wrote, “Local communities must come together when the federal health agencies and mainstream media are under the influence of the pharmaceutical industry.”

Dr. Tenpenny, Dr. Northrup and Mr. Bollinger didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Many local media publications and stations have reported responsibly and factually on the pandemic. Gannett, the publisher with 100 daily newspapers and nearly 1,000 weekly publications across 43 states, has dedicated resources to fact-checking and teaching journalists that accuracy matters more than speed, said Amalie Nash, senior vice president for local news and audience development at USA Today, which is owned by Gannett.

The investment was crucial because in the pandemic, “people turned to us in record numbers to get information about lockdowns, mask policies and vaccines,” Ms. Nash said.

But as the local news industry has been hit by declining advertising revenues and cuts, some outlets have sometimes unknowingly run vaccine misinformation because they have fewer employees or less oversight than in the past, said Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst. Without the resources to publish original, independent journalism, they may also rely on whatever can be freely repurposed from online material, he said.

In total, local media remains a significant force. There were 1,762 local television stations and 3,379 radio stations operating in the United States last year, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association and Syracuse University. While print publications have been decimated, there are still about 1,300 daily papers and 5,800 weekly publications, with roughly half located in small rural communities, according to research from the University of North Carolina.

Jo Lukito, an assistant journalism professor who studies disinformation at the University of Texas at Austin, said local media is often a starting point that creates a “trading up the chain” effect.

It starts when a rumor is covered or published in local media, she said, where it can gain a sheen of credibility. Then “when you pitch it to a Fox News or a larger news platform, you can say that this other outlet covered it, so it must be real,” she said.

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George Noory, host of the radio talk show Coast to Coast AM, in his studio in 2017.Credit…Ivan Kashinsky for The New York Times

One radio show that appears to have been part of that effect is Coast to Coast AM, which is syndicated on 640 local stations and reaches nearly three million weekly listeners. Its host, George Noory, has in recent years interviewed Dr. Tenpenny, Robert Kennedy Jr., a lawyer and anti-vaccine activist, and Erin Elizabeth, the founder of the website Health Nut News and a vaccine skeptic.

The activists have used their segments on the show to reinforce their messages. In a promotion for Dr. Tenpenny’s appearance to discuss the coronavirus in April 2020, for example, Coast to Coast AM’s website said, “She contends that there are so many unknowns in regards to testing, tracking, symptoms, and other factors, that the information we’re being told about the disease is meaningless.”

That line was shared on Dr. Tenpenny’s social media accounts and tweeted by some of her followers.

In a statement, Mr. Noory said, “We give all views on my program and that includes people who are opposed to vaccines.”

Vaccine misinformation has also been published on sites that purport to be local news, but which are pay-for-play content websites. These sites, where articles are ordered up and paid for by conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, have sprung up to fill the vacuum left by the loss of local publications.

Recent articles on some of those sites, such as Last Frontier News in Alaska and Bowling Green Today in Kentucky, highlighted people who died after receiving the Covid vaccines without saying that it was unclear if the vaccines were responsible, according to a review by The Times. The stories followed a pattern established on anti-vaccine blogs of pulling data from a national database of post-vaccine deaths without explaining the limitations of the data.

Last Frontier News and Bowling Green Today did not respond to requests for comment.

At least one local radio host has recently recanted his anti-vaccine stance. Phil Valentine, a conservative radio host in Tennessee, had declared in a blog post in December that he would not get the vaccine because his chances of dying from the virus were “way less than one percent.”

But Mr. Valentine was diagnosed with Covid-19 in July and has been hospitalized in critical condition. He has since issued a statement advising others to get vaccinated.

“Phil would like for his listeners to know that while he has never been an ‘anti-vaxxer’ he regrets not being more vehemently ‘pro-vaccine’, and looks forward to being able to more vigorously advocate that position as soon as he is back on the air, which we all hope will be soon,” his station, 99.7 WTN, said on July 23.

Last Wednesday, Mr. Valentine was put on a ventilator, 99.7 WTN said. The station has added a hashtag to its posts about the host: #prayforphil.

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