Reopen schools narrative spreads across shadowy local news sites

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Americans are divided about reopening schools this fall and polls show that this disagreement falls along party lines with Republicans more in favor of children returning to schools. Which is why it wasn’t surprising when we found a pro-school reopening narrative popping up this summer on a large network of local and business news websites known to promote conservative talking points.

These websites – which have innocuous names like Akron Reporter, Louisiana Record and Lake County Gazette – are filled with stories that appear dozens and sometimes hundreds of times across a network of more than 1,200 domains.

“Over 90 percent of their stories are algorithmically generated using publicly available data sets or by repurposing stories from legitimate sources. In the remaining stories that have an authentic byline there is often a conservative bent,” wrote Priyanjana Bengani at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism in an analysis published last year of the network and the companies that run it, which include Metric Media and Franklin Archer. Since Bengani’s first analysis, the network has grown three-fold. More reporting on these sites can be found at The Guardian and The New York Times.

Curious about the kinds of stories this shadowy network of news sites was publishing, we downloaded 22,925 news articles through the RSS feeds of 1,147 domains and did a quick content analysis. Here are some of the things we found based on what was published across these domains in recent days:

A pro-school reopening narrative

It’s clear where these local news sites fall on the school reopening debate. Buckeye Reporter in Ohio published “Ohio mom: ‘Do your job and stay out of the kids’ school’ to officials during COVID-19” on August 22, quoting someone named Cathy Moore saying “They’re afraid of everything… You can’t be afraid.” Michigan’s North Kent News ran a story, “Michigan Legislature passes bills to assist local districts return to school safely” featuring the state’s bipartisan plan to reopen schools. The Lone Star Standard in Texas published “Liberty Hill mom advocates for in-school learning” on August 23. The article “Remote learning during COVID-19 earns a failing grade, says WSJ” was published on 23 websites serving 23 different states.

Lots of clones

The top 16 most-cloned stories made up 11,484 of the 22,925 articles and each of these stories was published more than 630 times. The most heavily cloned story, “U.S. paint and wallpaper stores report $882 million in sales for April,” appeared a whopping 820 times, on domains from Montana to Alabama, all published on August 24, 2020 between 10:56am and 9:04pm.

The top 20 most cloned stories in our dataset.

Madlibs stories on political donations

More than 800 stories follow a simple robojournalism pattern like “[NAME] donates [AMOUNT] to [CANDIDATE]’s campaign committee in [MONTH]” that links to brief 50-word stories that hyperlink to the Federal Elections Commission and embed a table of the given candidate’s top donors. Most candidates we saw in our analysis were Democrats such as Christy Smith in California, Jonathan T. Ossoff in Georgia and Theresa Greenfield in Iowa.

A sample of stock images that ran with campaign donation stories on laxleader.com

Attacks on Democratic governors

Speaking of Democrats, the network of news sites publishes articles critical of Democratic governors like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer but most notably J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, with stories like “Rep. Bailey takes legal action against Pritzker’s stay-at-home extension,” “Nothing ‘fair’ about Pritzker’s tax plan for pass-through businesses, IBA president says,” and “Ideas Illinois chairman calls Pritzker’s promotion of fair tax proposal ‘inappropriate at best,’ illegal at worst.”

We’ll continue to monitor this network of news sites ahead of the presidential election in November.

Storybench’s editor is Aleszu Bajak, a science journalist and former Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. He is an alum of Science Friday, the founder of LatinAmericanScience.org, and is passionate about breaking down the divide between journalists, developers and designers.

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