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Cherry-picking COVID stats

COVID 19 misinformation
While the United States deals with a continued pandemic, it is also battling misinformation about the virus.

The United Nations secretary-general himself said that “journalists are key to countering the ‘dangerous outbreak of misinformation’ accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic.” But journalists across American mainstream media have repeatedly added to the misinformation.

These journalists have devoted dozens of articles to fighting COVID-19-related misinformation, largely blaming social media for its spread. But according to a Gallup poll, the media is partly responsible for creating division on COVID-19. And Americans’ distrust of the media is growing. Repeated misrepresentation of data within even the most respected outlets will only drive more Americans toward the very sources the media has blamed.

Major outlets have more competition than ever, so many have capitalized on what will get them the most clicks and the highest ratings: content scary enough to share.

Instead of honest and unbiased reporting, the mainstream media has twisted and distorted the numbers to scare the public into believing that their lives are at risk every time they leave their homes to shop, to go to work, or to exercise and that President Donald Trump is responsible for the more than 5 million reported cases of COVID-19 and the 175,000 deaths that have been attributed to it.

The distortions take many forms. At first, the media exclusively pushed death counts alone – guaranteed to stoke fear.

Once death counts began to fall, they lost their scare factor – but by then, testing had become more widespread. So the media began to publish positive test numbers and deaths — both daily and cumulative numbers — without context as to how many tests were conducted in a given day, the positivity rate of the tests, and how many of those who died had underlying conditions.

The opportunity to deceive the public with those numbers has passed, but the misrepresentation of data continues. It’s a back-to-school edition with the classic “what about the children?!” scare.

The Hill published an article headlined, “Nearly 600 Miami-Dade Public School Staff diagnosed with COVID-19.” making it appear that the cases were all new, stoking fear about the safety of returning to in-person classes.

But the numbers cited were from March to July of 2020, when schools were out. The Hill buried a quote from the president of their teachers’ union five paragraphs in: “They’re bringing it from home and they’re bringing it into the workplace,” she said. “They’re not getting it from the school system.”

The Hill also failed to contextualize the “almost 600” number. The Miami-Dade public school system is the fourth-largest in the U.S. and has 18,275 teachers. But providing that context would have diluted its message that returning to school is dangerous. Instead, the article stoked fear, calling reopening schools an “experiment” and citing the University of North Carolina’s outbreak (among adult students) and a K-12 school in Mississippi – the only one in the state that had an outbreak (and closed immediately) – as proof.

The Hill is not the first outlet to cherry-pick COVID-19 statistics, and it will certainly not be the last. But we must insist journalists do better.

Fear of the unknown is inevitable, and a period of “the unknown” is inevitable with a new virus. Those fears are valid.

But journalists have both the opportunity to temper that fear and the resources to ensure data is accurately presented. Media outlets are squandering the opportunity to correct misinformation, and if this continues, they will lose the trust it takes to correct it in the future.

Don Irvine is Publisher of Accuracy in Media and Caroline Lee Smith is Editor of Accuracy in Media

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