The Media Today

The miscalculations of coronavirus journalism

March 27, 2020

Yesterday afternoon, the United States passed a bleak milestone: it has more confirmed cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, than any other country on earth. As of this morning, more than 85,000 people have tested positive on American soil. At least 1,271 of them have died. New York is now the burning center of the American outbreak, with about 40,000 confirmed cases. But, of course, by the time you read these numbers, they will be out of date. And already, they paint an incomplete picture. The news cycle is a ceaseless eddy of grim statistics, and the fact that we don’t know whether or not they reflect reality is perhaps the scariest thing about them.

For weeks now, the uncertainty surrounding coronavirus data has made journalists’ jobs—already difficult—much harder. On March 3—just a few days after the US saw its first confirmed coronavirus death—Alexis C. Madrigal, a staff writer at The Atlantic, wrote a piece headlined “The Official Coronavirus Numbers Are Wrong, and Everyone Knows It.” The government’s failure to test widely for the virus, Madrigal noted, has made the official case count a highly unreliable measure of spread on US soil. Yet the figure still has been “constantly printed and quoted.” In different circumstances, “we’d call this what it is: a subtle form of misinformation,” he wrote. “People believe what can be quantified. But data do not always accurately reflect the state of the world.” Since then, officials have conducted many more tests, but (literally) countless numbers of people with covid-like symptoms are still unable to get one. Yesterday, Derek Thompson, Madrigal’s colleague at The Atlantic, wrote that we’re all still laboring under a “fog of pandemic.” “Is the US currently experiencing rapid growth in coronavirus cases, or rapid growth in coronavirus testing, or both?” Thompson asked. “The answer should sound familiar: We don’t know yet, and it will be a while before we do.”

ICYMI: China’s expulsion of American journalists also affects Chinese staff—and the future of reporting in China

Not knowing things is always anathema to journalists. Those who lack a solid grounding in data analysis—which is most of us—find it particularly hard to communicate to readers and viewers; journalists like to trade in authority, and uncertainty of this scale makes that almost impossible. (As the techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote this week, we also like simple, linear explanations, which don’t exist right now.) To bolster our authority, we interview experts, asking them to distill complicated knowledge into pithy, understandable quotes. The coronavirus has complicated that practice, too—there’s no shortage of experts to whom we can turn, but because this is a novel virus and disease, they, too, are uncertain, and often disagree with one another about the implications of what they do know.

“Experts are generally considered as monolithic providers of evidence,” Mattia Ferraresi, a journalist with the Italian newspaper Il Foglio, who observed similar dynamics in Italian coverage as the virus spread there, writes for Nieman Reports. “But scientific debate is by definition complicated, nuanced, and even messy—a dispute among competing hypotheses that need to be verified through a great deal of work and time.” Epidemiological arguments otherwise confined to niche science journals and conferences are now being hashed out in real time, on live television, with a “total” cases-and-deaths ticker stamped on the screen.

That’s not to say it isn’t worth interviewing experts about the coronavirus. But even a sophisticated model designed by credible researchers is only as useful as the quality of the data it’s crunching, and we know the available data is seriously flawed. Yesterday, Kai Kupferschmidt, a reporter for Science magazine, copublished a story about the different types of modeling we’re seeing around the world, and how forecasts have guided governments’ decisions to lock down (or not). Sharing the story on Twitter, Kupferschmidt warned that models appeal to reporters’ “worst instincts.” Even science journalists, he wrote, “tend to ignore or gloss over the assumptions that go into a model (if we even understand them).” Scary, worst-case-scenario numbers tend disproportionately to drive headlines. The eye of the reader tends to gloss right over the qualifier (“could”; “may”) to the apocalyptic possible body count.

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It’s not wrong to share numbers—confirmed cases; confirmed deaths—that are available, but it’s vital that we adequately contextualize them. The best thing we can do is embrace uncertainty and communicate it willingly to our audiences. That can be unsatisfying. But the current, confusing slew of matter-of-fact data stories is worse. “In the age of pandemic, we are all data journalists. Except we are not,” Ferraresi writes. We need to rediscover “the lost art of admitting that we really don’t know.”

Below, more on the coronavirus:

Other notable stories:

  • Last week, China expelled American journalists working for the Times, the Post, and the Journal. The decision provoked anger in the US—but, as Shen Lu reports for CJR, “American journalists weren’t the only ones affected. What has been left out of the news coverage and international condemnation of Beijing’s action are the job losses of at least six Chinese nationals employed at US news outlets: two Times news researchers, one Journal researcher, one Voice of America news assistant, and two CNN staffers.”
  • For CJR, Jenni Monet writes that coverage of the climate crisis routinely neglects stories affecting Indigenous communities, including ongoing legal challenges to the Dakota Access Pipeline. And Savannah Jacobson traces the troubling history of ExxonMobil’s PR strategy. “Taken in sum,” Jacobson writes, “Exxon’s media shrewdness and its aggressive political lobbying have set back climate action for decades.”
  • A court in Texas declined to dismiss a defamation case against Alex Jones, the InfoWars conspiracy theorist, by families of victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting, which Jones has called a hoax. The court said Jones’s appeal to dismiss the case was “frivolous” and ordered him to pay $22,250; added to prior sanctions, Jones, who is yet to face trial, already owes nearly $150,000 in legal fees. HuffPost has more.
  • The long-term political gridlock in Israel seems to be nearing an end after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, Benny Gantz, moved toward a power-sharing arrangement. Gantz is expected to be able to install a loyalist atop the Justice Ministry, as he seeks to ensure that Netanyahu’s impending trial—on corruption charges linked to his dealings with media companies—goes ahead. Anshel Pfeffer has more for Haaretz.
  • And Daniel S. Greenberg—a science journalist who produced the Science & Government Report, a newsletter, for nearly thirty years—died this month. He was eighty-eight. Greenberg’s wife told the Post that the newsletter never had more than two thousand subscribers but was read by “top scientists and science policymakers in the US and around the world.”

Related: COVID-19 is spawning a global press-freedom crackdown

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.