The QAnon problem facing local journalism this election season

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Ultimately, said executive editor Joel Christopher, the newsroom made a calculation that both candidates were extreme long shots. So they punted on the question entirely — and devoted no ink at all to the QAnon connections. In the end, the two candidates only received 3.3 percent of the total vote.

“But if anyone thinks this is going to vanish, they’re delusional,” Christopher said. “We’re going to have to tackle it at some point.”

Identified by the FBI as a potential terrorism threat, QAnon has spread since 2017 from fringe message boards to more mainstream pro-Trump communities active on some of the largest social networking sites, including Facebook. At the center of the convoluted belief system is the false notion that President Trump is waging war against a cabal of “deep state,” satan-worshipping actors who traffic children for sex, with the promise of mass executions to punish them. The worldview originates from posts by a self-proclaimed government insider using the pseudonym “Q,” whose predictions have repeatedly failed to come to pass.

Charting QAnon’s rapid growth and twisted theories has been challenging enough for the national reporters on the beat. But now that dozens of candidates expressing varying levels of interest in QAnon have mounted political campaigns, journalists at smaller local news outlets across the country are suddenly having to make sense of it, too. Liberal watchdog group Media Matters has been tracking these candidates, and by its tally, 21 of them will be on the November ballot. At least one — Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia — will very likely serve in the next Congress.

Frequently, it seems, local news outlets deal with a candidate’s QAnon affiliations by mentioning them only fleetingly or not at all.

A long story in the Los Angeles Daily News with short blurbs about local congressional candidates in February described Mike Cargile simply as “touting gun rights, border security and taking on Democrats who voted to impeach Trump.” Cargile, who will appear on the November ballot for California’s 35th district, also touts the QAnon motto (#WWG1WGA, standing for “Where We Go One We Go All”) on his Twitter bio while sharing conspiracy theory memes.

Alison Hayden, who beat five other primary candidates in California’s 15th District to make it onto the November ballot, has also shared QAnon hashtags on Twitter and articulated some of its beliefs in an interview with Los Angeles magazine. The East Bay Express, though, in February described her simply as believing “in small government and civil liberties and want[ing] to limit the ‘fiesta of fees and taxes’ that states and the federal government impose through environmental regulations.”

Both Cargile and Hayden are considered long shots in heavily Democratic districts. Others, though, could enjoy closer races. Republican Buzz Patterson, who captured 37 percent in the crowded March primary to challenge Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), replied “yep!” in April to a tweet about whether he supports “the Q movement.” Yet the QAnon question hasn’t come up in several local newspaper stories about him, even as they have reported on his role in spreading rumors about violent protests in his district and his defense of the phrase “Kung Flu” to describe covid-19. (Patterson’s QAnon tweet was later deleted, and he told Axios he didn’t remember sending it, adding he doesn’t “follow or endorse anything he/she/them say.”)

The fact that some candidates who once praised QAnon later deny any connection presents another layer of complication for journalists. One example is restaurateur turned gun rights activist Lauren Boebert, who upset incumbent Rep. Scott R. Tipton in the June GOP primary for Colorado’s 3rd district. In a May appearance on a webcast, she said the conspiracy theory wasn’t “her thing,” but added that she hopes “some of it is real, because it only means America is getting stronger and better and people are returning to conservative values.” She later denied being a QAnon follower but affirmed her belief in a deep state conspiracy against the president.

“QAnon is a lot of things to different people,” she told a local TV news station, Fox 31. “I was very vague in what I said before. I’m not into conspiracies. I’m into freedom and the Constitution of the United States of America.”

Experts worry that journalists can unwittingly legitimize QAnon or minimize its threat in how they approach the conspiracy theory, and not just through campaign stories. Some local TV stations, for instance, have covered “Save the Children” rallies without mentioning the digital QAnon inspiration behind these in-person events.

“Media outlets are struggling everywhere, so they’re understaffed and underesourced with people covering a wide range of news often outside of their expertise,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political science professor who specializes in misinformation and media. “As a result, reporters can get out of their comfort zone and end up trying to cover complicated matters of fact on deadline.”

The stakes are particularly high for local journalism, said Susan Benkelman of the American Press Institute, who wrote a QAnon guide for reporters. “People have more trust in their local news outlets than national ones, so it’s important for local journalists to get this right,” she said via email. “It’s not easy. They face questions about how to describe it precisely, how to get the tone right and how to make sure their audiences know what’s at stake.”

Local reporters may hesitate in directly confronting the contours of QAnon because of “a lack of confidence with the topic” or fear of appearing biased against a particular candidate or party, said Christopher of the Knoxville paper. (Boebert, the Colorado candidate, charged that attempts to label her as a QAnon follower was a “fake attack” by Democrats.)

Still, he said journalists should write about QAnon the way they would any other form of extremism. “It’s a real danger,” he said. “People have to recognize what a threat to the system a group like this can be.”

Jo Rae Perkins used a QAnon-affiliated hashtag in a Facebook post announcing her decision to run against Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), as the Portland Business Journal noted in January. She ended up winning nearly 50 percent of the vote in a four-way Republican primary, and then made several references to QAnon in an Election Day video that was soon deleted. While news outlets such as the Oregonian and Oregon Public Broadcasting stayed on the story, other, smaller papers that previously covered her as a candidate who wanted “to see less government” haven’t written about her since.

“At every level, there needs to be more reporting on what this is, and not just specifically that this candidate has said about these things, but that this thing exists,” said Beau Williams, a reporter for Capitol Beat, a nonprofit Georgia news service that provides state government stories to newspapers throughout the state. “We need to do a better job of explaining more about what this is and how much of an influence the QAnon theorizing mind-set has in Georgia, if it’s just a few people or if people have really kind of taken a hold of this.” Just because voters selected a QAnon candidate doesn’t mean they believe in the theory themselves, he said — they might not even know it was part of the candidate’s beliefs.

Williams has written about Greene’s QAnon sympathies. Several of his stories have appeared in the Rome News-Tribune; the newspaper, in one of the 14th Congressional District’s biggest towns, has also published Associated Press stories about the connection as well as reporting by some of its own staff writers.

“A lot of small papers don’t have the resources to go deep on candidates like this,” said state government and politics editor Susan Potter. But she noted that the Journal-Constitution also covered other aspects of her campaign. While national journalists write about Greene “as a character who holds troubling views,” she said, “we have a slightly different obligation.”

Last month, Colorado’s Durango Herald published an editorial chiding national news outlets for harping on Boebert’s ambiguous praise of QAnon. But one reader wrote to the newspaper wanting to know why the Herald hadn’t covered the connection before.

“You have a newspaper,” Michael Black wrote in a letter to the editor. “If the news is important enough for the Herald to write editorials about, why isn’t it important enough to show up on your news pages?”

An editor’s note pointed out they hadn’t totally ignored Boebert’s QAnon ties. But it could only cite a single an Associated Press story, and not its own reporting. The headline: “GOP candidate Boebert linked to QAnon; campaign says ‘we are not into conspiracy theories.’ ”





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