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A year ago, Gallup reported that trust in media was at an all-time low. We trust our media sources, our Maddows or our Carlsons, but we have no avuncular Walter Cronkites who command the respect of a majority of Americans. That’s dangerous during a pandemic, when there’s a premium on reliable and consistent information. Unfortunately, COVID-19 media coverage has only further eroded our confidence in established news sources.

There have been multiple flaws. Few reports explain the data they cite. During July, every news outlet focused on the surge of new cases in Arizona, Texas, and Florida. A “surge” of “new cases” sounds alarming, but many “cases” are merely positive tests (which may be false positives), with mild or no symptoms. Hospitalization rates, not infection rates, provide a better indicator of a true surge. Journalists repeatedly observed that the surge was taking place among younger Americans, often without acknowledging that younger Americans are at very low risk for serious illness. “97,000 children tested positive for COVID-19 in two weeks” shouts an August 10 CNN piece, but nowhere does the article indicate how many of these children are actually sick. Besides, the growth in recorded infections accompanied a dramatic expansion of testing, sometimes approaching one million tests a day. A net that big is bound to catch a lot of fish. Infections may be increasing, but wider testing might be identifying infections that would have otherwise gone undetected. To determine what’s happening, the surge in testing has to be factored in, but few mainstream publications have bothered to do that.

Reporters also cite daily death tolls without explaining what the numbers mean. There’s an unavoidable lag between death and official recording, and counting errors and adjustments in diagnosis can cause a “dump” of deaths into a particular day. As a result, the death toll looks very different than the recorded count. On August 6, for instance, Florida reported 180 deaths, but only 28 Floridians actually died on that day, while 37 died on August 5 and 24 on August 4. The point isn’t that COVID is innocuous, or that the deaths don’t matter. The point is about coverage. It’s the difference between a headline that reads, “Thirty-seven Floridians Die From COVID” and one that states, “One Hundred and Eighty Floridians Die.” Both numbers should be reported. Comparisons between the fatality rate for flu and COVID are likewise given without elucidation. COVID is far worse than the flu, we’ve been told again and again, but the numbers are more complicated. COVID has killed .0052 percent of the global population, more than the Swine flu (2009-10, .0029 percent) but less than the Asian flu (1957-8, .070 percent) and far less than the Spanish flu of 1918 (2.73 percent).

Reporting on the epidemic has tilted toward bad news and ignored positive trends. Journalists have been able to find a cloud for every silver lining. That CNN piece on children states, “Florida is still grappling with one of the worst infection rates in the country. As of Monday, more than 17% of tests taken turned out to be positive.” By other metrics, though, Florida was already coming out of the woods. On August 6, several days before CNN posted its report, Floridas reported death numbers were declining and hospitalizations in Miami-Dade were falling. By August 8, hospitalizations had passed the peak throughout Florida and were down nearly 30 percent. Throughout July, Arizona and Texas were in the news as cases and deaths increased, but few reporters paid attention when hospitalization rates stabilized and declined dramatically in early August, without renewed lockdowns. For the moment, the Sunbelt has beaten back the pandemic, but few notice or care. When Sweden refused to impose mandatory lockdowns, it attracted the ire of the global media. Once the Swedish strategy proved fairly effective, it’s no longer a popular topic.

Given such reporting, it’s not surprising that American perception of the pandemic is grossly inaccurate. A mid-July poll conducted by the public relations and communications firm Kekst CNC found that “people significantly over-estimate the spread and fatality rate of the disease.” In Britain and Sweden, “the public think 6-7% of people have died from coronavirus.” When asked, “What percentage of people in your country have died from the coronavirus?” America’s answer is 9 percent. The average American, in other words, thinks COVID has killed over 29 million fellow citizens. The official death toll is around 165,000.

Should we blame this wild divergence between perception and reality on high school math teachers, or on media? The teachers bear some culpability, but unbalanced reporting, relentlessly frightening headlines, and dystopian visuals foster an image of ubiquitous threat. Many Americans pick up their news impressionistically, from headlines and photos, and conclude that COVID has claimed nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population. After all, if the virus hasn’t killed one in eleven Americans, why did we shut everything down? 

The prevalence of bad reporting is enough to tempt one to conspiracy theories. Politics doubtless plays a role. Hammered by the White House for several years, journalists have found a way to hammer back, at least until November 3. But it’s not all politics. American media have always reveled in the sensational, and I suspect many reporters, like many of their readers, are genuinely terrified by the epidemic.

But the media failure exposes deeper fissures in public life. The pandemic has thrown a spotlight on a general crisis of trust, which is the flip side of a crisis of authority. Political authority has, for instance, been thrown into question. As Oliver ODonovan commented in a Mars Hill Audio interview with Ken Myers, leaders around the world have delegated policy-making to public health bureaucrats, whose power rests on expertise rather than democratic choice. That raises a fundamental question of political order: Where does authority come from? Is it any wonder that many are resistant to bureaucratic exhortations to “Follow the Science”? Likewise, the erosion of trust in media isn’t a partisan issue, but a danger to our whole society. How long can we stick together if each sector of the country has its own set of facts? How long can we hold out as a people without common objects of trust?

Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.

Photo by Anthony Quintano via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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