In a year when local news has been arguably more important than ever, newsrooms across the country have faced drastic cuts. The decimated industry has left many Americans without a clear avenue for getting relevant and reliable information about their communities -- and nefarious actors have taken advantage of this opportunity to fill the void with hyperpartisan narratives and conservative misinformation. While this tactic is not new from right-wing media, the stakes were higher and the consequences greater in 2020.
The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic was particularly devastating for an industry already in decline before the virus hit. Newsrooms strained by shrinking ad revenues and consolidation found they could not weather the pressures of COVID-19 without cutting staff or shuttering entirely. Thousands of outlets have been impacted this year, according to the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which maintains a database tracking these cutbacks. Local newspapers were hit much harder than local TV newsrooms, according to the Pew Research Center and NiemanLab.
In the absence of trusted local reporting, partisan commentary and right-wing misinformation can thrive. Conservative activists have already proven willing to seize on the decline of local news -- and the perceived trustworthiness of local outlets -- to further their agenda. For example, Media Matters has previously reported on the dark money-funded Franklin Center’s network of state “watchdog” sites, which provided partisan coverage of state governments earlier in the decade. A similar strategy is now taking hold in Georgia as the state heads into contentious January runoff elections that will determine control of the U.S. Senate.
We are seeing the likely consequences of this dynamic already, as many stories were missing from the pages of local newspapers and the airwaves of local broadcast news in 2020. Local news outlets failed to warn viewers about health risks of political rallies, declined to inform people that a politician running for national office was making racist statements, and omitted right-wing extremist violence from their reporting. While local outlets fail to cover vital stories in their community, right-wing media have plenty of room to fill the gaps with misinformation via local talk radio, news stations owned by conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, and hyperpartisan local sites.
Local broadcast TV news stations have sometimes fallen dangerously short covering the pandemic and the presidential election
Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially after it began affecting the 2020 presidential campaigns, local TV news stations sometimes failed to give important public health context in their coverage -- potentially putting viewers at risk. This has ranged from omitting new local COVID-19 developments in stories about national pandemic policy, ignoring problematic decisions by local governments or federal institutions with local impacts, or neglecting to report when local representatives spread misinformation related to the pandemic. Local news stations in several states repeatedly failed to connect President Donald Trump’s superspreader political events to their area’s status in the ongoing pandemic -- even failing to warn viewers about the health risks of attending these Trump rallies after several had been tied to infections and even deaths.
There were also serious failures in local TV coverage of voting procedures and controversial candidates for federal office. In Florida, most TV news coverage in the state failed to properly explain how a new court ruling would make it nearly impossible for residents with former felony convictions to vote -- a measure that disproportionately targets Black potential voters. Broadcast news stations in Pennsylvania and Minnesota also mostly neglected to explain proper procedures in the immediate aftermath of court rulings which changed how mail-in votes can be counted close to the presidential election. Local TV news coverage also largely overlooked the reported sexual misconduct and bigotry of then-candidate and now Rep.-elect Madison Cawthorn (R-NC). They also neglected to mention print reports with new information about Sen. David Perdue’s (R-GA) stock trading scandals before voting for the Georgia runoffs began (newspapers throughout the state also failed to cover this in their print editions).
Sinclair Broadcast Group spread health and voting misinformation through its expansive network of local TV news stations
Sinclair Broadcast Group owns one of the largest concentrations of local television stations in the United States and uses it to broadcast conservative propaganda to unwitting local news audiences. In recent years, it hired Fox News castoffs who were fired for sexual misconduct to push right-wing misinformation.
Stations owned or operated by Sinclair have had their own unique failures related to the pandemic and the election. Around the end of August, at least 55 Facebook posts and 36 Twitter posts from Sinclair stations’ social media accounts shared articles from their own or other Sinclair stations’ websites which lacked context about data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, effectively misleading people into believing COVID-19 isn’t as deadly as it’s proven to be. And when it came to broadcasts, the Sinclair station in the Florida congressional district where bigot Laura Loomer won her Republican primary election failed to mention the anti-Muslim hatred she is known for while covering her victory. Georgia’s Sinclair stations in May similarly failed to cover recent insider trading news about Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, while non-Sinclair stations in the state did multiple times.
Locally produced newscasts are not the only way Sinclair has spread misinformation through the country this year. Sinclair employs several national correspondents who produce short news segments which are distributed throughout its network of local TV stations to air around the country in local news broadcasts. Over the summer, many of these national Sinclair news segments hid violence by police and others against protesters who were marching against police killings of Black Americans and repeated debunked falsehoods about the topic. On the weekends, the company also airs two news-like programs, Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson and Eric Bolling’s America This Week, which have spread similar -- and at times more dangerous -- misinformation.
Sinclair’s dangerous COVID-19 misinformation was twice pulled from the airwaves
Earlier in the pandemic, Sinclair’s national correspondents would cover the right-wing protests against COVID-19 precautions without including warnings from health experts against the consequences of lifting those restrictions too early. Later on, these news reports amplified Trump’s attempts to downplay how dangerous the novel coronavirus is and his lies about his mishandling of the pandemic, or distracted from his attempts to politicize the coronavirus vaccine effort. One of Sinclair’s weekend programs, Full Measure, also touted the discredited use of hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment.
But it was on Sinclair’s America This Week where the really deadly misinformation happened. The program started out by downplaying the threat of the pandemic, using racist terms, and pushing conspiracy theories about the origin of the coronavirus. As the pandemic grew worse and worse, host Eric Bolling repeatedly agreed with his guests that public health restrictions needed to end. Bolling brought up a Trump-boosted conspiracy theory downplaying the deadliness of the coronavirus. He aired a segment advocating for a “natural herd immunity” strategy that would kill millions -- and later interviewed the White House adviser who proposed that strategy to the president while failing to bring it up. Bolling also allowed Trump to spread COVID-19 misinformation via the town hall interview he conducted in October. In November, he floated a partisan conspiracy theory after Pfizer announced on November 9 that it had developed an effective vaccine, calling for a congressional investigation and suggesting the timing of the announcement was politically motivated.
On two occasions, Bolling’s COVID-19 misinformation was so dangerous that Sinclair simply pulled it off its stations’ airwaves. The first time was in late July, when he interviewed a conspiracy theorist from the Plandemic viral video which had been banned from social media platforms for its harmful misinformation. After widespread criticism, Sinclair pulled the entire episode after it aired on one station -- though not before defending the interview as an expression of free speech. The second occasion was in mid-October, when Sinclair cut a part of Bolling’s opening monologue in which he falsely claimed face masks and lockdown precautions do not help slow the spread of COVID-19, though The New York Times reported that the Sinclair host “stood by his unsubstantiated claims that Chinese scientists had tampered with the virus.”
Sinclair also repeatedly spread misinformation about voting
As the presidential election approached, Sinclair spread misinformation about voting from both its national correspondents and its weekend program America This Week. In late June, a Sinclair news segment pushed Trump’s debunked lies about fraud in absentee voting and included so little pushback against the lie that one local anchor had to more thoroughly explain the security features of mail-in voting following the prerecorded segment. In mid-July, Bolling used his program to amplify Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting by using his interview of a former secretary of state in Washington state to validate claims that voter fraud is rampant. And a series of Sinclair national news segments which covered Trump’s false attacks on mail-in voting made no mention of his deliberate weakening of the Postal Service prior to the election.
After the election, Sinclair stations also spread debunked misinformation that originally came from right-wing video group Project Veritas, which is known for infiltrating progressive organizations, campaigns, and nonpartisan institutions and heavily editing recorded undercover footage to allege wrongdoing. For example, multiple Sinclair stations spread their lie that a post office was illegally backdating ballots in Michigan the day after local and national media debunked it.
Conservative talk radio hosts undermined faith in public health measures and the electoral process
For decades, local conservative talk radio has served as a source of hyperpartisan commentary on community issues and as a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. Without trusted local sources to provide the facts or hold these hosts accountable, misinformation and dangerous rhetoric can run rampant on local airwaves.
Throughout the pandemic, talk radio hosts have attempted to undermine the work of local officials to control the spread of the virus. In the spring, right-wing hosts across the country were at the forefront of efforts to promote protests against stay-at-home orders. Local radio hosts in Arizona rejected mask mandates implemented by cities there in June, when COVID-19 cases were surging. When coronavirus numbers surged in Wisconsin this fall, the hosts in the state downplayed the spike and complained about new public health orders.
Listeners’ faith in the electoral process was also under attack ahead of the 2020 election. After Trump claimed “bad things happen in Philadelphia” during a debate, local radio hosts in the city suggested that local Democrats were planning to steal the state’s election, and some even helped local Republican leaders recruit poll watchers. As Pennsylvania continued to count votes following Election Day, conservative hosts across the state suggested that the additional time needed to count mail-in ballots was actually a sign of a widespread conspiracy by Democrats engaged in election fraud.
Hyperpartisan “news” pages became superspreaders of misinformation across the country
In the days after the 2020 election, a site called the Milwaukee City Journal falsely claimed that certain wards were reporting more votes than registered voters. A site called Peach Tree Times added to the ever-growing pile of voter fraud conspiracy theories by suggesting that ballot rejection rates in Georgia portended election shenanigans. Ahead of Georgia’s runoffs in January, Georgia Star News -- a new website with deep ties to Trump and his former adviser Steve Bannon -- began to pepper audiences with stories of election fraud and conspiracy theories aggregated from the right-wing fringe.
Georgia Star News is the latest project of Star News Digital Media, which was founded in 2017 by tea party activists and now operates half a dozen conservative news sites. From the beginning, the company’s explicit aim was to flood residents of battleground states with pro-Trump propaganda and to coat local news in the same grievance- and conspiracy-filled venom as used by outlets like The Daily Caller and Breitbart.
Metric Media, which runs the Milwaukee City Journal and Peach Tree Times, operates nearly a thousand such pages. A New York Times investigation revealed that the company’s sites amount to little more than content farms for right-wing political groups and PR firms.
Those sites and hundreds of others like them are part of a growing trend of hyperpartisan “news” pages designed to look like legitimate local news outlets that have taken advantage of the collapse of the local news industry. Such sites have been around for nearly a decade, but their numbers have grown dramatically over the past few years.
As local newsrooms dwindle, unreliable and harmful misinformation will continue to spread
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the local news industry in providing critical on-the-ground reporting that cannot be replicated on the national level. Cuts to funding and to whole newsrooms and outlets during the pandemic present a crisis point that will continue to be exploited by social media echo chambers and right-wing news outlets filling the void with misinformation.
Social media’s replacement of local news outlets as the primary source for community information will likely contribute to an absolute deluge of conservative misinformation and the spread of local conspiracy theories in the years ahead, both issues we have already seen play out this year during the election cycle and the pandemic. The year 2020 has proven yet again that protecting resources for local reporting is essential -- and could even save lives.