Local radio and television stations are Americans’ frontline defense against misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines. That is the message the National Association of Broadcasters told Congress Thursday. While social media and cable news may spread conspiracy theories, NAB President Gordon Smith said supporting local broadcasters’ fact-based approach is the best way to keep getting people to roll up their sleeves.
“We’re anxious to report the facts as we get them, that’s our job,” said Smith. “And in the end the more clarity that the government can speak with, the more hopeful it can be in terms of its own messaging, and that life can return to normal, that kind of messaging is strong incentive,” he told the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband.
Lawmakers’ focus on media messaging about the coronavirus vaccines comes amid growing concerns that some media outlets are discouraging Americans from getting a COVID-19 vaccination. “They see and hear confusing and conflicting messages on the internet, radio, and cable television,” said Subcommittee Chair Ben Ray Luján (D-NM).
But Smith said the best way to combat bad information is with more information. “We are anxious to report the facts that are accurate,” he told lawmakers. “You have to keep combating falsehoods with hope and the facts.”
Congress has earmarked $75 million for public education advertising about the vaccines included in the federal budget passed in December. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is specifically directing some of the ad dollars to radio and television.
“Since then, we’ve seen hesitancy rates fall dramatically, but we knew it would not be enough,” said Luján.
CDC data shows vaccine hesitancy rates are highest in Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana and Idaho. The data supported Smith’s pushing Congress to ensure enough money is available so that the vaccine ads can be placed on rural stations.
“If you want to reach everyone, you got to include large and small, urban and rural, ethnic and otherwise, you have got to use all the tools in the toolbox and you have to be persistent at it,” said Smith. “If you are, the American people will get the accurate information as on no other medium than broadcast radio and television.”
Media As Infrastructure
During a two-hour hearing on Thursday, several senators voiced gratitude for the work of broadcasters during the past year. “They have performed an enormous public service in informing the public about the precautions that are necessary and the commonsense steps that will save lives,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
The prospect that media-related issues could be tied into congressional Democrats’ expanding view of what could fall under a federal infrastructure bill also surfaced. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said she is investigating ways to classify news as a “critical infrastructure” to help preserve local media outlets.
“I don’t think people understand how close we are to losing more,” said Cantwell. She said a need to save local outlets has been ratcheted up during the pandemic. “Where would be if we didn’t have those vehicles of broadcasters and newspapers,” said Cantwell.
Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) is also pushing a bipartisan bill with Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) that would create an exemption from antitrust laws to negotiate collectively with the tech giants during a four-year period without running afoul of antitrust regulations. “They have got to be able to negotiate content rates, so they have the funds to be able to keep being strong, so we don’t have everyone getting news from the misinformation on the internet,” said Klobuchar.
The proposal has faced an uphill battle, having been introduced in each of the last three congressional sessions while failing to gain traction. But with companies like Facebook and Google under pressure in Washington, supporters think it could finally advance.
“People are really struggling now to find out what the facts are and where truth could be found,” said Smith. “Fortunately for broadcasters, they’re number one on the list as most trusted and reliable.”
Smith said another way Congress could help broadcast diversity grow would be to pass legislation that would revive the minority tax certificate program that gave incentives to owners to sell stations to women and minority owners.
“You could do it with a stick, but it is better with a carrot,” said Smith. “Diversity in broadcast ownership is not for a lack of will, just a lack of access to capital and this helps fix that.”