In the wake of historic election gains for women last fall and opinion polls this month showing that Americans (correctly) blamed Donald Trump for the longest government shutdown in history, it’s easy to feel complacent. It might seem like we’ve overcome the information challenges that defined the 2016 election when, for example, the media’s obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails drowned out substantive discussion of the two candidates’ competing policy proposals. As the Columbia Journalism Review reported in 2017, “In just six days [in October 2016], The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”
But as we prepare for the next two years—with policy fights expected nationwide on health funding, affordable access to contraception, abortion rights, Medicare for all, Medicaid expansion, red tape disguised as “work requirements,” and more—it’s important to take stock of the ways in which the information landscape is increasingly tilted toward far-right and anti-science interests—with a big impact on women’s health.
Not only is it important to question whether national mainstream media outlets have learned the right lessons of 2016—and there’s plenty of reason to believe they haven’t—it’s worth looking at the myriad other ways Americans get their news.
For example, 45 percent of Americans say they primarily get their news from Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center. During the fight last October over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, tech companies like Facebook and YouTube heavily promoted right-wing sources that supported his confirmation. New York Times social media reporter Kevin Roose discovered that the most widely distributed Facebook posts about Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came from Fox News, Breitbart, racist pundit Ben Shapiro, and far-right outlet The Daily Caller. YouTube, owned by Google, was no better. Another media observer found that the first results for a YouTube search for "Christine Blasey Ford" were from hard-right media personalities Tucker Carlson, Lou Dobbs, and Glenn Beck.
Even when information isn’t inherently partisan, social media algorithms tend to amplify the worst, most outrageous, and least factual content. Peter Adams of the News Literacy Project found that searching YouTube for "should I get my child vaccinated?" and “Importance of vaccination" almost immediately queued up anti-vaccine conspiracy videos to play automatically even though his first was on scientifically accurate, mainstream content.
Meanwhile, the openly pro-Trump Sinclair Broadcasting has been quietly taking over local broadcasting stations and using its control to spread conservative propaganda, reaching the 37 percent of Americans who say they primarily get their news from local TV, according to Pew. The company made headlines in 2018 by requiring all of its 193 local affiliates—which reach almost half the country—to read the same canned on-air editorial parroting Trump’s rhetoric.
As Vox reported last year, “unlike Fox News, Sinclair programming comes to people on local TV, on channels affiliated with ABC or NBC or CBS or Fox, many of which have existed in their communities for decades before Sinclair bought them. Millions of these stations’ viewers have no idea that they’re watching conservative editorials rather than normal local news, which gives Sinclair incredible power to persuade viewers of conservative ideas.” The New Yorker reported, “In the  election, voters in areas with a high concentration of Sinclair stations chose Trump over Hillary Clinton by an average of nineteen points.”
“When correcting a falsehood, state the fact first and last. Repeated information stays in the mind.”
Meanwhile, researchers have found evidence that watching just three additional minutes of Fox News per week in 2008—say, when you were captive in a doctor’s waiting room—“would have made the typical Democratic or centrist voter 1 percentage point likelier to vote Republican that year,” as reported by Vox.
Working to close that information gap and provide medically accurate, scientifically sound information about women’s health and the policies that affect us is one of our most important undertakings at the NWHN. It’s also a driving force for our members.
All around the country, NWHN members have been working to reclaim their news. In Rhode Island, for example, activists are fighting the Sinclair takeover of their local station. Others are pressuring Congress to hold tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter accountable.
And you can get involved too. Send letters to the editor to your newspaper or TV station demanding substantive policy coverage over sugar-high “horse race” coverage. Find out HERE which stations in your state are owned by Sinclair and let your neighbors know that the channels they have trusted in the past may have been hijacked. Even simple steps can help, like asking waiting rooms to change away from Fox News or educating yourself on the best way to stop the spread of bad information. The News Literacy Project has tips like: “When correcting a falsehood, state the fact first and last. Repeated information stays in the mind.”
And, of course, don’t forget to support organizations working to share good information!
Sarah Christopherson, MA, is the Legislative Director for the social justice campaign, Americans for Tax Fairness, and the NWHN’s former Policy Advocacy Director. Her 10 years working for Congress and her deep knowledge of health policy and consumer protection make her the NWHN’s issue area expert on federal health reform implementation and defense, drug and device safety and efficacy, and sexual and reproductive health.
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