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How Local Media Spreads Misinformation From Vaccine Skeptics

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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 sent links to several reports about the human reproductive system. 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.

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