How a story about ivermectin and hospital beds went wrong

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Over the long weekend, one of the trending topics on a number of social-media platforms was a news item from Oklahoma with some terrifying information: it said that so many people were in hospital due to overdoses of ivermectin—a drug originally designed for horses, which some anti-vaccine sources have been promoting (incorrectly) as a defense against COVID—that there was no room in the intensive-care units for other patients, including those with gunshot wounds. The story, from a local news outlet called KFOR, contained quotes from an interview with Dr. Jason McElyea, a local physician, and the article quickly got picked up by a number of national outlets, including Rolling Stone magazine, the Guardian in the UK, Newsweek magazine, and Business Insider. A producer for MSNBC repeated the claim on Twitter (although she later deleted it), and so did the Rachel Maddow show.

Not long afterward, the story started to spring some major holes. As detailed on Twitter by Drew Holden—a public-affairs consultant in Washington, DC and former assistant to a Republican congressman—and by Scott Alexander on his popular blog, Astral Codex Ten, the first sign that all was not right came with a statement from a large Oklahoma hospital, which said that there was no bed shortage due to ivermectin overdoses, and that the doctor quoted in the KFOR report didn’t work there. Others pointed out that in his original interview with the Oklahoma news outlet, McElyea hadn’t said anything about ivermectin cases crowding out other patients. He mentioned that there had been some ivermectin overdoses, and he said that beds were scarce, but the connection between the two seemed to be a leap that the news outlet and subsequent reports had added.

This was all it took for the story to catch fire with right-wing Twitter trolls and other conservative groups, as yet another example of the mainstream media‘s tendency to make up news stories to either make citizens of rural areas look stupid, or to overstate the risk of non-mainstream COVID treatments. Many latched on to the tweet from the Maddow account, and used it as evidence that no one fact-checks their statements any more, especially when they serve the purpose of making right-wing anti-vaxers and COVID denialists look bad. Others used the Rolling Stone story as an excuse to revisit the magazine’s infamous investigative story from 2014 on an alleged rape at the University of Virginia, which collapsed after the single source it was based on retracted some of her statements.

This alternate version of events, aimed at making the mainstream press look as derelict as possible, also left out some important facts, however. For example, the statement that there had been no ivermectin cases came from a single Oklahoma hospital, one that wasn’t even mentioned in the original KFOR report. And while McElyea wasn’t working at that hospital when he made his comments, he works for an agency that provides services to various local hospitals, and had worked at that one. He also confimed in his original interview that there had been some ivermectin overdose cases in the hospitals he was familiar with, although he didn’t say these cases had taken ICU beds away from other patients. He has since said he was misquoted (Rolling Stone added an extensive editor’s note to its story retracting the core point of the report, but the KFOR story remains in its original form).

As Alexander noted, the KFOR story seemed designed to tell everyone what they most wanted to hear. Anyone predisposed to think that rural residents of southern states are rubes prone to overdosing on horse medicine would find exactly what they were looking for, and so would anyone who thought the media overplays or even manufactures “fake news” to fit a particular COVID narrative. As Derek Thompson, a writer for the Atlantic, argued, the truth is likely somewhat more prosaic: that “journalism was always a mix of great, good, mediocre, and shitty work,” and the internet makes it easy to find the latter as well as the former; and that the current cultural environment encourages “team picking,” or finding narratives that fit a specific world-view, even if they have to be bent out of shape to do so.

Here’s more on the news:

A real mess: Daniel Dale, CNN’s leading fact-checker, went into detail on how the ivermectin-in-Oklahoma story fell apart. On Twitter, he said that the story “went from 1) bad initial local story to 2) unquestioning national aggregation and tweets and then to 3) too-quick denunciations of the doctor whose comments had been poorly contextualized.” The major lesson for all involved, he said, was that “a comment from one person or entity is often insufficient to demonstrate that something is true or not true. Another lesson is to look for the initial source of stories that have gone viral via aggregation.”

A viral hoax?: Writing in Reason magazine, Robby Soave notes that while many are happy to point fingers at social-media platforms for spreading misinformation about COVID, and called for social media sites to reduce its spread, “pandemic-related misinformation is not confined to the far-right fringes—readers can also encounter it in the pages of Rolling Stone and The New York Times.” In one recent example, Soave writes, the Associated Press reported that 70 percent of calls to Mississippi’s poison hotline were from people who had taken ivermectin, but the real figure was just 2 percent.

Disinformation: In a discussion with Joe Bernstein of BuzzFeed last week on CJR’s Galley platform, about his recent Harper’s essay on disinformation, Bernstein argued that one of the problems with the term is that it doesn’t have any agreed-upon definition, which means that anyone, including right-wing trolls, can define it in whatever way they wish. “Even among the academics and researchers who study this, there aren’t common and stable definitions of ‘disinformation’ and ‘misinformation,'” Bernstein said. “So though the terms sound scientific and empirical, they aren’t. In fact I think the most common use of the word basically signifies ‘things with which I don’t agree.’”

Other notable stories:

Vox Media is acquiring Hot Pod, the podcast-focused newsletter written by Nicholas Quah, and says it will become Vox’s first subscription-based offering, according to a report from Variety. “Ashley Carman, a senior Verge reporter, will replace Nicholas Quah, who launched Hot Pod in 2014, and who will become a podcast critic for Vox Media’s Vulture,” the site reported. Vox also owns sites like SB Nation, Recode and The Cut.

RT Deutsch, a Kremlin-backed media outlet, has become the most prominent media outlet on social media in Germany just weeks ahead of the country’s federal election on September 26, Politico reports. “Since March, RT Deutsch has focused on promoting anti-vaccine fears around the COVID-19 pandemic and championing the far-right Alternative for Deutschland,” the report says. “Its efforts, collectively, have racked up roughly 22.7 million interactions on Facebook in the form of comments, likes and shares, according to research from the German Marshall Fund (GMF) of the United States, a Washington-based think tank.”

Defector, a blog collective launched last year by staffers who were laid off from the sports blog Deadspin by owner G/O Media, says that it has signed up 40,000 paying subscribers, and collected about $3.2 million in payments as of the end of August. “As tempting as it was to empty our business bank account, fill an empty swimming pool with $3.2 million, and spend the last year swimming around in our riches,” said Tom Ley, one of the group’s co-founders, “we instead decided to use our revenue to stand up a functioning, sustainable media company.” Ley said half the money was used to pay salaries and benefits for the group’s twenty three writers and editors.

Newsweek repeatedly published sponsored articles that promoted a type of colloidal silver, falsely claiming that it can prevent or treat COVID-19, according to a report from Media Matters. The sponsored content, which has since been removed, targeted Black people, young people, and the elderly, and made false statements such as claiming the silver could “lower the odds of contracting COVID-19,” “spare” people from “infection,” and “aid with recovery,” Media Matters reported. A Newsweek spokesperson told the site that until recently, sponsored content “was not supervised by a Newsweek editor,” and that the articles referred to “did not meet Newsweek’s editorial standards and have now been deleted.”

In the period from August of last year to January of this year, news publishers known for putting out misinformation “got six times the amount of likes, shares, and interactions on the platform as did trustworthy news sources, such as CNN or the World Health Organization,” the Washington Post reported, based on a peer-reviewed study done by a group of researchers at NYU. The study “helps add to the growing body of evidence that, despite a variety of mitigation efforts, misinformation has found a comfortable home — and an engaged audience — on Facebook,” Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University, told the Post.

Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism, is trying to connect would-be journalists with mentors in the industry, and editor Todd Burns said the publication now has too many mentees and not enough mentors to go around. “Are you open to offering up your experience in a mentorship role to a young music journalist? Please email me with the subject line ‘Mentor’ and a little bit about how you think you might be able to help,” he asked in the newsletter’s latest issue.

Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s director of news, is expected to leave the publicly-funded corporation soon, according to sources who spoke with the Guardian, amid what the newspaper called “worsening relations with the government and internal battles over a staff reorganisation.” Unsworth has held almost every senior position in BBC News, including the top news job at the national broadcaster since January 2018, “and is one of a handful of senior executives who sits on the BBC board, the organisation responsible for setting the corporation’s overall strategy,” the Guardian reports.

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