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COVID-19 news can be “accurate” but still not “truthful”

News media can mislead even while all the “facts” are correct. Case study of CNBC and The Hill report about coronavirus deaths and states re-opening.

It’s day 103 since the first case of coronavirus disease was announced in the United States. Misguided news reports may be a bigger threat than the disease.

This set of headlines greeted me when I checked in with Memeorandum before writing my daily newsletter.

 

The United States just had its deadliest day on record due to the coronavirus as states across the country begin to ease restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus, according to data published by the World Health Organization.

That was the CNBC lede, which slyly linked “opening” with “record deaths.”

I did a double-take, and then looked at my Johns Hopkins data. US deaths on 01 May, 2,049 (11 pm Pacific). Checked CDC: 2,349. Checked state departments of health: 1,793.

I know why the reporter linked the data with re-opening, but it implies a correlation that’s crazy-making because of the lag between exposure, infection and death.

Both CNBC and The Hill (which regurgitated the CNBC story) focused on protests:

State leaders around the country continued to see protests from demonstrators who want to reopen the economy and return to their jobs. Demonstrations took place in California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Tennessee and Washington on Friday.

Neither story notes that the protests are “manufactured,” not organic.

Neither story notes that a majority of Americans, Republican and Democratic, are not eager to venture out into the world.

First, the data

Daily data on cases and deaths are notoriously … slippery. There are lags at labs, which may have a backlog or may have insufficient materials to run the tests; there are sample lags due to insufficient swabs; there’s the weekend, when fewer individuals are tested; there’s the lag in reporting from lab to agency. This is why so many data visualizations use three- or seven-day moving averages, to try to smooth out the variance.

Each group uses different data sources, although you’d think that the state departments of health would be the primary source.

The important thing about data: pick a data source and then ignore the others. You’re looking for trends. “The largest X” is important when it illustrates a jump in a trend line; this did not. It’s important when pointing out that the trend is still growing, not declining, but contextually. Not as though daily death totals were a baseball score.

I was so annoyed that I calculated the CDC daily numbers. (I can do that because I capture their daily data; they do not report this way.) The red/bold entry is the largest for the week.

That 01 May elevated number in the WHO report suggests it was compensating for an information lag from earlier in the week. Are Friday numbers always elevated? I haven’t checked, but that’s a possible artifact of their data collection system.

Second, the protests

Two weeks ago, The Guardian detailed the right-wing groups behind these astroturf, made for cable-TV, spectacles. Some, as New York magazine detailed, have been linked to established conservative political groups and politicians.

From Columbia Journalism Review:

Several mainstream outlets have compared the anti-lockdown protests to the Tea Party movement—which, of course, has faced allegations of Astroturfism itself. In 2011, Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin, of Harvard, wrote that Fox and other right-wing media entities didn’t just encourage the Tea Party, but acted, in a sense, as its “membership and communications infrastructure,” since, on the ground, the Tea Partiers were only “loosely interconnected.”

In an action akin to his support for Charlottesville protesters where a woman was killed, Trump tweeted support for the armed men in Michigan:

 

Sentiment runs counter to the public objections

Pew Research reports are the gold standard on methodology (which includes substantive sample sizes). Here’s what they found:

About twice as many Americans say their greater concern is that state governments will lift restrictions on public activity too quickly (66%) as say it will not happen quickly enough (32%)…

Nearly three-quarters of Americans in counties with the highest number of deaths say the response wasn’t quick enough. A nearly identical share of adults in areas that have been hit moderately hard by coronavirus deaths also say this (73%)…

When it comes to the problems the country is facing from the coronavirus outbreak, 73% of U.S. adults say the worst is still to come, compared with 26% who say the worst is behind us. Majorities of both Republicans and Democrats say the worst is still to come. However, Democrats are much more likely to say this than Republicans.

 

It’s possible to be accurate but not truthful. As news readers/listeners/watchers, we need to be constantly aware of this.

Moreover, the kind of crisis that is accompanying coronavirus globally – long and slow-burning – does not fit the daily news cycle. You are apt to find more nuanced – and truthful – essays in news magazines. I recommend The Atlantic and The Economist.

And if you’re following along at home, pick ONE data source and get used to it. Look for patterns, not day-to-day variance (unless it’s giganormous, which this was not). Then turn set your BS meter to “high”.

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By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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