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Tenacious reporting examines soaring influence, funding of RFK Jr.’s anti-vaccine group

FILE - Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at a rally outside the Albany County Courthouse in Albany, N.Y., Aug. 14, 2019, following a hearing about vaccine religious exemptions. An AP investigation finds that Kennedy’s organization, Children’s Health Defense, has raked in money and followers as Kennedy used his star power as a member of one of America’s most famous families to open doors, raise money and lend his group credibility while spreading misinformation about COVID vaccines. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Aug. 13, 2019. – AP / Hans PENNINK

Correspondent Michelle Smith tracked Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine group for months and used multiple analytic tools to comprehensively reveal how he and his group have capitalized on the pandemic to spread misinformation about, and fear of, the coronavirus vaccine.

Smith’s investigation provided the first in-depth reporting on Kennedy’s organization, Children’s Health Defense, and how it has dramatically grown its revenue and audience during the pandemic.

Smith,based in Providence,R.I.,had been following Kennedy for months,monitoring his speeches and connections among anti-vaccine and far-right activists,combing through public records and social media postings,and digging up data revealing the scope of his influence. She searched Facebook and web pages across the U.S. to show how Kennedy’s followers spread his message in all 50 states. She also worked with SimilarWeb,a digital intelligence company that analyzes web traffic and search,and Crowdtangle,a platform that measures social media performance,to understand exactly how the group’s reach has grown since the pandemic began.

Smith partnered early on with New York multiformat journalist Marshall Ritzel and Washington news editor for video Jeannie Ohm on their approach to the video piece accompanying the story. For photos,the team worked with assistant general counsel Brian Barrett to ensure AP could use an Instagram post showing Kennedy with Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, and a screenshot from a video that showed Kennedy’s face next to a sticker of Anthony Fauci with a Hitler mustache.

The story drew heavy readership on AP platforms with more than 328,000 pageviews,becoming the top story of the day and the second most popular story of the past week. It was picked up around the world and was translated into French by Canada’s La Presse. MSNBC was among the U.S. outlets that picked up the entire story or referenced it,and it landed on the front pages of several members’ sites,including The Boston Globe. Several newsletters also picked it up,including CNN’s Reliable Sources,The Washington Post’s Daily 202 and the Poynter Report.

For authoritative reporting that shines a light on Kennedy — the ”ringleader of the misinformation campaign” according to one medical expert — and his anti-vaccine group, Smith and Ritzel earn AP’s Best of the Week — Second Winner.

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