"The 'It's about ethics in horse paste journalism' phase of the discourse"

Misinformation knows no political party.

On September 3, Rolling Stone published an article with the headline, “Gunshot Victims Left Waiting as Horse Dewormer Overdoses Overwhelm Oklahoma Hospitals, Doctor Says.” If you’ve ever spent any amount of time on the political side of Twitter, you know that’s exactly the kind of headline that would go viral with a certain segment of liberals. Unsurprisingly, it did. (Here’s a link to an archived version of that article as it first appeared.)

There was one big problem: it wasn’t true — at least not entirely.

Despite the provocative headline, there’s no evidence that “horse dewormer overdoses” were “overwhelm[ing] Oklahoma hospitals.” The story was based on a September 1 interview between Oklahoma TV station KFOR and Dr. Jason McElyea, a local doctor. Here’s where the problems began.

If you listen to what McElyea said during the interview, he doesn’t actually make any such claim.

“The ERs are so backed up that gunshot victims were having hard times getting to facilities where they could get definitive care and be treated,” he said, making no mention of ivermectin (the drug being referred to here as “horse paste,” which we’ll get to in a moment) being the cause.

In what was actually a completely different question on a completely different topic, McElyea addressed the issue of people buying ivermectin from animal supply stores and trying to figure out an appropriate dosage on their own.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘If I take this medicine, what am I going to do if something bad happens?’ What’s your next step, what’s your backup plan?” said McElyea. “If you’re going to take a medicine that could affect your health, do it with a doctor on board. Make those decisions with a thoroughly vetted opinion. There’s a lot of schooling that goes into that. It’s not just something you look on the internet for and decide if it’s the right dose.”

There’s nothing objectionable about anything he said. It is good advice to take prescription medication under a doctor’s supervision. It is good advice not to self-medicate with animal supply store purchases using dosages found on the internet.

Unfortunately, KFOR fell into the exact trap Rolling Stone would: it ran the headline, “Patients overdosing on ivermectin backing up rural Oklahoma hospitals, ambulances.” The truth is much more likely to be that people with COVID are the ones putting stress on the health care infrastructure, with any additional calls about ivermectin being a secondary problem rather than the cause.

From there, Rolling Stone added a little spice to KFOR’s headline (replaced “ivermectin” with “horse dewormer,” adding in the bit about gunshot victims being “left waiting”), and paired the story with a photo of a long line of people (readers might reasonably conclude that those people were waiting for the hospital, but that also wasn’t the case: it was a photo from January in Oklahoma of people lining up to get vaccinated!).

What Rolling Stone did compounded the existing mistakes made by KFOR in its report. A number of other outlets did the same thing, but it was really the Rolling Stone version that took off on social media, garnering a number of comments about how fundamentally American it is for people to overdose on horse dewormer rather than get vaccinated while preventing gunshot victims from being able to get care.

Mistakes were made.

I’m willing to give the author of the Rolling Stone piece the benefit of the doubt (I reached out for comment via Twitter DM, but I never received a response) that this wasn’t done on purpose. It just doesn’t make sense to do this on purpose. That said, the entire ordeal could have been averted had someone at Rolling Stone pressed pause on the piece while they tried to confirm the facts as they understood it. A call to McElyea would have been helpful, a comment from the hospitals he works at (he didn’t mention their names during the segment) would have also clarified the situation.

They didn’t do the legwork needed to verify the story they put out into the world, and Rolling Stone’s reputation will suffer for it.

That’s not where the story ends, however. In fact, it set off a whole conversation about how media discusses ivermectin as it relates to COVID-19. It became, as New York Times tech reporter Ryan Mac tweeted, “the ‘it’s about ethics in horse paste journalism’ part of the discourse.”

Conservatives seized on this opportunity to slam the press for spreading “fake news” and condescending to people who, despite being repeatedly told by the FDA as well as the drug’s own manufacturer that this is not a proven treatment for COVID-19, believe in ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment. These criticisms weren’t exactly off-base, either.

Right-wing news outlets saw an opportunity to bolster their decades-long argument about “liberal bias” in media.

In an article lamenting the loss of “the journalistic B.S. detector,” The National Review’s Kyle Smith described Rolling Stone’s update as “the mother of all journalistic corrections when it nuked its own weekend story about how gunshot victims were supposedly going begging at several Oklahoma hospitals…”

In it, he gave a shout-out to conservative Twitter commentator and public affairs consultant Drew Holden for putting together a list of people on the left who shared the Rolling Stone story.

In a second National Review piece, thesaurus enthusiast Kevin D. Williamson decried the “reflexive prejudice deform[ing] journalism in ways that are not limited to seeing the occasional work of pure fiction published as news.” He does, at one point acknowledge ivermectin probably isn’t good to take as a COVID-19 treatment, so kudos for that.

Mask-counting scooter hobbyist Robby Soave wrote a fairly comprehensive piece at Reason that I more or less agree with. He took issue with the headline and the photo choice, which are both some of my regular criticisms of mainstream news outlets.

It is vital for the media to communicate correct information to the public about ivermectin. While the drug is not only used for deworming horses and is in fact prescribed to humans, overdoses can cause nasty side effects. Moreover, its viability as a COVID-19 cure is highly disputed. As Reason's Ronald Bailey noted in a recent article, there's little evidence that ivermectin is an effective treatment for the virus. Reporters should make crystal clear that the best way to fight the COVID-19 pandemic is mass vaccination. But communicating wrong information about ivermectin overdoses works against this goal, as it is likely to convince vaccine skeptics that their skepticism is justified.

Here are some links to stories in right-wing and right-leaning media outlets that show the range of the criticisms here:

While I don’t agree with every point being made in these pieces, publishing them makes sense. They were given a free chance to kick in the proverbial teeth of the media, and they took it. I will say that I don’t agree that this was a “lie” or a “hoax,” and I’ll also point out that the “debunk” they rallied around (a somewhat cryptic comment from one of the hospitals McElyea works for) didn’t actually debunk the story (it was actually looking at the source material in the form of the KFOR interview that provided the more conclusive evidence that the story was wrong). In addition, I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong for Rolling Stone to have referred to it as “horse dewormer” as its story was premised on people overdosing on the animal version of the drug (though, to be fair, “horse dewormer” is probably needlessly provocative).

At the Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram offered criticism of the right-wing criticism (we’re starting to get pretty meta here). I tend to agree with him:

However, this alternate version of events, aimed at making the mainstream press look as derelict as possible, also left out some important facts. The statement that there had been no ivermectin cases came from a single Oklahoma hospital—and while McElyea wasn’t working at that particular hospital when he made his comments, he had worked there previously, and works for an agency that provides services to various local hospitals. McElyea also stated 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 told another Oklahoma news outlet he was misquoted by KFOR. A number of news outlets updated their coverage—Rolling Stone added an extensive editor’s note to its story retracting the core point of the report—but the KFOR story remains online in its original form.

As [Astral Codex Ten’s Scott] 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; 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,” all of which is easy to find on the internet, and that the current cultural environment encourages “team picking,” or finding narratives that fit a specific world-view, even if they must be bent out of shape to do so.

I am glad that I’m not alone in criticizing the story among people who are not part of the right-wing press.

When I worked at Media Matters, I spent my days reading a lot of right-wing news. When those outlets would publish false information (which was often), one thing you wouldn’t see from their fellow travelers on the right was criticism. It’s rare to see Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, Daily Caller, Fox News, Infowars, New York Post, Daily Wire, et al. criticize one another. They just don’t do it very often, preferring to just pretend it didn’t happen and moving on.

For instance, Gateway Pundit has a tendency to misreport basic facts about mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and really just about anything it can get away with trying to pin on the left. The publication called survivors of the Parkland massacre “crisis actors” and falsely claimed that the Trump hat-wearing suspect was a “registered Democrat.” Gateway Pundit also did that in response to a different shooting in Jacksonville. Gateway Pundit also did that in response to the deadly car attack during 2018’s “Unite the Right” rally. If there was any pushback on the right to those false stories, I haven’t seen it.

If you’re looking for explanations of the ivermectin story from mainstream sources, I recommend checking these out:

Halfway through writing this, a new bit of shoddy ivermectin-related reporting started circulating on Twitter.

Citing a 2011 study made up of only 37 people, some Twitter users and news outlets (including KFOR, the source of the earlier misinformation chaos) began making claims that ivermectin causes sterilization in 85 percent of men. This is bad journalism, bad information, and only provides more of a reason for people not to trust the press.

[lets out the world’s longest, deepest sigh] Have a nice weekend, everybody!