The Media Today

Coronavirus testing is a freedom of information issue

May 12, 2020

Yesterday—toward the end of a press conference in the Rose Garden focused on coronavirus testing—President Trump had a tense exchange with Weijia Jiang, of CBS News. Jiang pressed Trump on his repeated claims that the US is doing better on testing than other countries. “Why does that matter?” she asked. “Why is this a global competition to you if, every day, Americans are still losing their lives?” Trump replied that Jiang was asking the wrong person—or, more specifically, the wrong country. “Ask China that question,” he said. “Okay?” He then tried to call on CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, but she deferred to Jiang, who followed up. “Sir, why are you saying that to me, specifically, that I should ask China?” Jiang, who was born in China, asked. Trump interjected, “I’m telling you. I’m not saying it specifically to anybody—I’m saying it to anybody that would ask a nasty question like that.” Collins then tried to get her question in, but Trump wouldn’t let her. He then cut the presser short and stalked off.

Cutting away, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer called the incident a “very, very ugly ending” to the briefing; moments later, Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, came on air to address what had just happened. “It is racist to look at an Asian-American White House correspondent and say, ‘Ask China,’” Stelter said. “This isn’t happening in a vacuum.” Indeed not; Trump and his staff, as Stelter pointed out, have a record of such remarks. In 2017, shortly after he took office, Trump asked April Ryan, a White House correspondent who is Black, whether the Congressional Black Caucus were “friends of yours.” Much more recently, as the coronavirus crisis intensified, Jiang reported that an unnamed White House official called the coronavirus the “kung flu” to her face. And then there’s the gendered element. Last night, Olivia Nuzzi, Washington correspondent for New York magazine, noted on Twitter that Trump’s “unprofessionalism is always revealed most clearly when he is interacting with female reporters… who conduct themselves calmly and professionally in response.”

Related: Taking a breath at the eye of a storm

Trump’s press conferences are commonly overshadowed by ugly moments, even when the substance of what he said is alarming, too. Yesterday’s was no exception. Standing next to a banner that read “AMERICA LEADS THE WORLD IN TESTING,” the president rattled off a litany of misleading claims about his administration’s performance, bragging, for instance, about the countries America leads in per-capita testing without mentioning the many countries—including Germany, Spain, Russia—that it lags. The US has ramped up testing in recent weeks, but its current daily figure—394,211 tests as of yesterday, according to The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project—is still far below what experts say is necessary, and what Trump himself has promised. (Last month, he said the US would “very soon” be running five million tests per day.) At yesterday’s presser, Trump repeated his old claim that anyone who wants a test can get one, which wasn’t true the first time he said it, and isn’t true now, either. As German Lopez wrote afterward for Vox, “When all those other factors are taken into account, the US is still playing catch-up to other countries.” Of course, that does not look as good on a banner.

The failure of the Trump administration—and many other jurisdictions worldwide—to run sufficient testing has been a huge story for many weeks. After two people who work in the White House tested positive for COVID-19 last week, for example, many journalists pointed out that the aggressive testing regimen that allowed those cases to be detected isn’t available to the millions of Americans the administration wants to go out and restart the economy. Still, some observers have criticized the press for botching the testing issue. In recent weeks, Nate Silver, of the data site FiveThirtyEight, has argued repeatedly that coverage of rising COVID-19 case counts in many parts of the country has ignored the effects of increased testing. (The more tests you run, the more positive results you can expect to generate.) This lack of context, Silver says, creates perverse incentives—if officials fear that finding more cases will lead to bad headlines, they may decide to run fewer tests. (Last week, Trump said out loud that testing is making him “look bad.”) Sections of the press, Silver has argued, are emphasizing raw case counts for reasons of “narrative,” and should focus on the positive test rate, instead.

Media narrative-making clearly doesn’t excuse bad public-health policy. And data illiteracy—in the face of this monumentally confusing story—is likely just as much to blame for poor coverage, if not more so. Whatever the reason, it’s true that much reporting on case data still feels inconsistent, and disjointed. There’s an enormous difference between a “case” of COVID-19 and a “confirmed case,” yet the terms are often used interchangeably. And Silver is, broadly speaking, correct that the confirmed case rate is a better measure than the count. In the continued absence of truly widespread testing, though, even the rate is a deeply flawed metric. Until testing—both of current cases, and for antibodies—is routine, our data coverage will continue to be partial and conditional, and open to all sorts of contradictory interpretations.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The absence of the data here isn’t journalists’ fault; still, a change of emphasis could make our coverage better. Testing is not just one among the many failures of our leaders; nor is it just an essential prerequisite for safely reopening the country. Rather, we should see it as the coronavirus story’s central informational plank, without which we can’t know anything much about the virus’s spread. It’s tempting to see our existing knowledge as a universe that expands outwards when we learn more, but it might be more useful to think of it as the contents of a house. Currently, we’re only able to see what’s visible through the keyhole. The point isn’t to make the house bigger; it’s to open the door.

To that end, the press should treat testing as a freedom of information issue, as well as a medical one. Journalists aren’t typically shy about demanding the information they need to do their jobs. The only difference in this case is that we’re asking officials to work out how to obtain the data, not to stop hiding information they already have.

In the interim, when sharing data, we should aim to always tell news consumers about its limitations, what removing those limitations might show us, and, when necessary, whose fault they are. Recently, CJR’s Lauren Harris spoke with Caroline Chen, a healthcare reporter for ProPublica, about the importance of contextualizing coronavirus data, particularly with regard to testing. “If you don’t give [readers] that context, one day, they’re going to see a very small number of cases. Then, a month later, [in the event of expanded antibody testing] they’re going to see a very jarring headline that says, ‘There are way more infections than we thought!’” Chen says. “That’s when people can come out and say, ‘We’ve been lied to,’ when that’s not actually the case. We’re just able to measure something different now.”

Below, more on the coronavirus:

  • The shows must go on: Later today, Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Stephen Hahn, the head of the Food and Drug Administration; Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health; and Dr. Anthony Fauci will testify virtually before the Senate Health Committee. According to the New York Times, Fauci will warn of “needless suffering and death” if the country reopens too quickly. Some of the committee’s members may show up in person, but its chair, Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, will appear remotely after one of his aides tested positive for COVID-19. (Redfield, Hahn, and, to a limited extent, Fauci are also in quarantine following exposure to coronavirus cases in the White House.) Also today, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments related to the release of Trump’s tax returns. Audio of the hearing will be broadcast live.
  • Upfront and impersonal: It’s upfront week. Kinda. Yesterday, NBCUniversal conducted its annual kickoff event for advertisers, which typically takes place at Radio City Music Hall, via videolink, but didn’t announce its fall programming, due to the uncertainties imposed by the pandemic. Fox made a tentative scheduling announcement yesterday, but didn’t try to replicate the showcase fanfare; Walt Disney, which owns ABC, and CBS are holding smaller presentations online. As John Koblin and Tiffany Hsu write for the Times, “media companies are just hoping to remind advertisers that they still exist.”
  • Dept. of Thee, Not Me: In recent days, some Fox News personalities have urged a swift end to lockdown measures; yesterday, on Fox & Friends, host Brian Kilmeade suggested that the public should develop a “military mindset” and “take on the enemy” because “sitting on the sidelines will destroy the country.” Last night, CNN’s Stelter reported that despite such rhetoric, the network has extended its own work-from-home policy through June 15. “While some hosts have expressed caution and emphasized the need for safety,” Stelter writes, “others have been gung-ho about getting back to normal, even while broadcasting from their homes or other socially-distant locations.” (Some Fox anchors and technical staffers are still operating out of the network’s New York HQ.)
  • Big-picture stuff: Yesterday, The Atlantic launched “Uncharted,” a new series exploring “the world we’re leaving behind, and the one being remade by the pandemic”; its early contributions include James Fallows on air travel, Megan Garber on saying farewell to the handshake, and Dave Grohl, of the Foo Fighters, on “the day the live concert returns.” (ICYMI, I wrote in yesterday’s newsletter about how journalists should approach the big-picture social questions raised by the pandemic.)
  • Fewer words on the street: For the Post, Emily Davies profiles Street Sense, a newspaper that supports homeless vendors in Washington, DC, but has had to stop its presses due to the pandemic. It’s not alone. According to the International Network of Street Papers, until recently, “homeless people handed out newspapers on street corners in 35 countries,” Davies writes. Now, “for the first time since the street paper movement began in the 1980s, the vast majority have ceased publication.”
  • Help at hand: Nicole Brodeur, of the Seattle Times, profiles Gina and Brittany Singer, a mother-daughter carrier team for the paper who offered to make and deliver masks to customers at no extra charge. “Brittany made and gave out 75 masks before they ran out of elastic,” Brodeur writes. Since then, “their waiting list has grown to 40 names.”

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

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.