Of course it was news when Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced that he is running for president. When he does anything, it is news, mostly because of his name.
In his early career, he used science and the law to hold our regulatory infrastructure to account, resulting in environmental gains, including cleanup of the Hudson River. Even then, he was criticized by his colleagues for being fast and loose with science.
But over the past 20 years, he has careened from questioning whether our government is sufficiently protective of the public to spreading disinformation. His outright disbelief in established science is demonstrated most vividly by his crusade against vaccines and vaccine science. He has produced and endorsed pseudo-documentaries that are chock-full of exaggerated, unsupported claims and then held screenings of them for legislators, though few showed up. He held rallies against vaccines on the steps of state capitol buildings and injected himself into discussions about licensing for doctors, keeping children healthy at schools, and Covid vaccines. He has amplified disinformation agents and even quacks who push false vaccine narratives. He has held fundraisers for politicians who reject public health protection. He even tried to ingratiate himself with Donald Trump, who himself started off his presidential run by promoting lies about childhood vaccines and autism. RFK Jr. claimed in early 2017 that Trump wanted him to lead a “vaccine commission,” which thankfully never came to fruition.
In response to all this, many of the Kennedy clan have rejected his views publicly. Some environmental organizations that once celebrated him are now quietly removing his name from their websites.
I, too, am an environmental attorney who became a public health advocate. As a result, I have been asked several times to debate RFK Jr. by TV news producers, and I have always declined. Scientific consensus is determined through research, not debate. Nothing good would come of elevating his dangerous disinformation to the level of scientific discourse where each individual is positioned as “equal” in terms of the data they bring to the table.
But ignoring him entirely is equally fraught. In today’s environment of social media and fragmented news, he will find a platform, or create one.
Hopefully the news media learned the perils of breathlessly covering every utterance of nonsense from a candidate who has no affinity for truth in the 2016 election cycle. Every reporter covering RFK Jr.’s run for the presidency should think about what we learned from the coverage of Trump, both during his campaign and during the early days of the pandemic.
Plenty of think pieces about Trump’s first run offer lessons that apply equally to RFK Jr. But it’s worth revisiting some of the most important aspects of that guidance. Here are seven things that the media should do to cover RFK Jr. without accidentally spreading his disinformation.
1. Provide context without pushing a narrative. Let me be clear: Our institutions are not perfect. The Environmental Protection Agency has taken too long to enforce aspects of our environmental health statutes, leaving whole communities behind. The Food and Drug Administration has gotten things wrong at times. Sometimes, these problems are due to lack of resources (a combined fault of both the executive and legislative branches), while at other times they have been borderline derelict, as shown by the failure to properly regulate and protect the public from the danger of opioids.
But these agencies are what we make them. The way to improve them is to elect science-minded leaders, supply them with the necessary authority and funding, and require as much sunshine as possible. Be frank about where our institutions have not done enough, but be equally clear about their strengths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FDA, for example, collectively failed to predict and prevent the opioid crisis, but they are certainly better at deciding whether to approve a vaccine (or an abortion drug) than an ideological judge relying on a blog post.
2. Explain the history. This applies to any issue RFK Jr. speaks about, but especially vaccines, where he has a decades-long history of denying and obfuscating scientific evidence of the issue. Journalists assigned to cover RFK Jr.’s campaign should familiarize themselves with vaccine science so they can pre-bunk and debunk his statements with a deep understanding of the long history surrounding false information campaigns about vaccines.
For example, journalists should be familiar with the most common anti-vaccine tropes and be frank that that’s what he’s doing, even if it means that he may call you to complain. (For example, he doesn’t like being called “anti-vaccine,” but that’s what he is.) Explain up front in the framing of the article that RFK Jr. has spent more than a decade making a name for himself spreading misinformation about vaccines, including referencing Nazis and the Holocaust in his harmful rhetoric. Prepare the audience with context before relating RFK Jr’s latest salvo of lies — reminding them of his history — and then provide accurate statements from an expert before moving on.
3. Call a lie a lie. Remember the angst and hand-wringing that accompanied NPR’s and the New York Times’ first use of the word “lie” in discussing the former President Trump’s screeds? The decision to clearly distinguish between fact and fantasy in his statements took too long. Any news coverage of an RFK Jr. campaign would have to be full of fact checking and clear signposting for the public to understand exactly what is at stake.
4. Avoid false balance. Treat anti-vaccine disinformation like flat-Earth manifestos. Get a few quotes from public health experts refuting the candidate’s statements and move on. Don’t elevate the falsehoods by also quoting someone else who subscribes to them. Where science is uncertain, journalists should rely on experts to explain the risks and unknowns, as well as the risk of not adopting a public health measure.
5. Take care with headlines. Recitations of falsehoods — whether or not they pull in the eyeballs — are a dangerous way of perpetuating misinformation. We all know that many people won’t actually read the article, so they only absorb the headline. Careful coverage may not get as many clicks, but it should ensure the public comes away with a full understanding of both the candidate and the science. A good headline will highlight the falsehood, like this one, while a bad headline, like this one, baldly repeats the false claim, leaving the article to do the harder work of context and correction.
6. Only allow debates on policy. For example, we can reasonably debate whether vaccines should be required for school or public health workers, what types of exemptions should be available, and how rigorously they should be enforced. It is appropriate to consider the relative importance of privacy, liberty, and public health as part of a policy discussion on when and where vaccines should be required or merely encouraged. But there should be no debate about what the evidence about vaccines’ safety and effectiveness actually shows. There is no “both sides” on the science.
7. Have compassion for RFK Jr.’s followers. He is taking advantage of them. Remember that many communities may have well-earned reasons to distrust doctors, scientists, public officials, and public institutions. Dismissing their concerns casually will only fan their fears.
Instead, be compassionate and understanding of the reasons for low vaccine rates in communities with poor access to care, or who have been the targets of vaccine disinformation. Call him what he is: a privileged opportunist who preys on vulnerable communities to gain fame and fortune. Those who have avoided or delayed vaccination due to the misinformation spread by RFK Jr. are the victims. It will take a great deal of work to undo the harm done to these communities, and the media should not pile on and make it worse by ostracizing or diminishing them.
Some people might think that his candidacy is such a long shot that it isn’t even worth taking seriously. But Donald Trump showed us how dangerous it is to dismiss a conspiracy theorist with a chip on his shoulder and a famous name. The recent decision by an ideological activist judge in Texas to throw out the FDA approval process for a prescription drug is just a hint of what we might see with an RFK Jr. presidency. RFK Jr. has demonstrated his disdain in our regulatory apparatus and would likely seek to replace it wholesale with whatever pseudoscience he favors — to the detriment of us all. I can only begin to imagine the parade of horribles that would spew if he ever gained leadership of our government. Now, we need the media to fulfill their responsibility to the public.
Leah Russin is a public health advocate in California.