Efforts to reign in talk radio rhetoric overdue, according to Virginia Tech media expert

Megan Duncan

Megan Duncan. Photo courtesy Virginia Tech.

One of America’s largest talk radio networks wants to control its most popular hosts from spreading misinformation, a move Virginia Tech media expert Megan Duncan says is long overdue.

Cumulus Media executives say its hosts must stop suggesting that the election was stolen, and could face termination if they don’t comply.

“Talk radio hosts have found success in many cases by positioning themselves as an alternative to mainstream news and developing relationships with audiences that feel personal,” said Duncan, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech School of Communication, in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, whose research focuses on news credibility, political news and digital news audience engagement.

“Then when news outlets presenting evidence contradict what radio talk show hosts have told them about rigged elections or the corruption of the mainstream news, audiences tend to trust the talk show hosts,” Duncan said.

Cumulus and other radio syndication companies had plenty of opportunities before Wednesday’s insurrection to tell its hosts and employees they couldn’t make claims without evidence, said Duncan.

“That should have started before the election,” she said. “It is too late for the police officers who were injured and Officer Brian Sicknick. It is too late for the attendees who died. But, it’s not too late to defend democracy and the values central to Americans, such as the peaceful transfer of power.”

“While it’s difficult to disentangle what portion of false beliefs that the election was rigged is attributable to talk radio shows, it’s clear that they played a role in distributing the claims to a much broader audience than they would have in online-only forums, giving them credibility and making it an acceptable set of beliefs to have in society.”

“Whether it’s motivated by morals, brand safety or pressure from advertisers, companies seem to be aware at least momentarily that rhetoric has consequences and drawn a line at insurrection.”

“If the Pizzagate incident at Comet Pizza was a 30-second teaser on the dangers of misinformation, what happened Wednesday was the full episode,” said Duncan.


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