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Analysis: How the Media Deceives on Coronavirus

Throughout the presidency of Donald Trump, members of the media—who see him as an abnormal, corrupt, and divisive president—have emphasized his failures and minimized his successes. For example, the Trump administration brokered a deal between the United Arab Emirates and Israel that normalized the countries' diplomatic relations and suspended Israeli annexations in the West Bank. POLITICO responded with an article entitled "Trump's Win Is a Loss for the Middle East," decrying the deal as an ego trip that hangs the Palestinians out to dry.

Apparently, the media believe that reporting on Trump's successes would be missing the forest for the trees. His conduct is so reprehensible, they contend, that conceding an inch would give him and his administration undue credibility. Regardless of its merits, this practice shows that editorial considerations regularly permeate the newsroom.

The media have taken a similar approach during the coronavirus pandemic. Quickly identifying lockdowns and take-charge governance as the optimal response to the pandemic, the media have provided favorable coverage to states and countries that shuttered businesses and restricted free movement. Meanwhile, they have unfavorably reported on states and countries that embraced contrarian approaches. The epidemiological merits of lockdowns notwithstanding, the media have clearly identified their position—and their one-sidedness has implications for their credibility.

A beach in Clearwater, Florida

Consider first the media's effusive coverage of politicians, states, and countries that embraced lockdowns. The New York Times gushed, "With his coronavirus briefings, Gov. Andrew Cuomo [D., New York] has emerged as an authoritative voice in the crisis." NBC News presented Governor Phil Murphy (D., New Jersey) as the Garden State's savior: He "led the team working to combat the rapid spread of the virus hand in hand with the state Health Department and other public health experts, holding more than 80 news briefings." U.S. News & World Report, reporting on a WalletHub analysis, crowned Rhode Island as the state that has "been the most aggressive against the coronavirus thus far." And POLITICO trumpeted New Zealand, promoting the island nation as it "enters the post-pandemic future."

Absent from the reporting on New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are quantitative assessments. New York has the most deaths in the country and, on a per-capita basis, they are second to only the Garden State. Rhode Island fares better when the metric is the nominal death count, but their per-capita death count—nearly a thousand per million people—is among the worst in the nation. And New Zealand, which supposedly "beat" the coronavirus, is managing a cluster of cases in Auckland.

On the other hand, the media have unforgivingly reported on the states that rejected lockdowns and autocratic governance.

When the Wisconsin Supreme Court nullified lockdown orders as unconstitutional, the Washington Post ran with this headline: "After Wisconsin court ruling, crowds liberated and thirsty descend on bars. 'We're the Wild West,' Gov. Tony Evers says." CNN, apparently disapproving of the school-reopening plan of Governor Ron DeSantis (R., Florida), blared: "Child hospitalizations from Covid-19 surge 23% in Florida as schools statewide must reopen." Georgia—which started reopening in late April—has received the harshest coverage of all. Reporting on Cherokee County, the Times noted: "1,193 Quarantined for Covid. Is This a Successful School Reopening?"

The facts tell a different story than these doomsday headlines. Wisconsin is 28th in the country for coronavirus deaths, despite being 20th for population, and their death rate per one million—176—is roughly a fifth of that of Rhode Island. Underneath CNN's fear-mongering headline on Florida were the raw data, which show that child hospitalizations rose marginally from 246 to 303 in America's third-largest state. Meanwhile, Florida has a per-capita death rate less than half of that of Rhode Island.

The Times' coverage of Georgia was the most misleading. Out of nearly 33,000 in-person students in Cherokee County, just 38 tested positive and 14 of those cases were concentrated in one high school. A more accurate headline would be: "As a Precautionary Measure, 1,193 Quarantined in District of 33,000."

More generally, the media produce alarming reports on the number of positive cases in states that eschewed prolonged lockdowns. What is left out of these reports, however, are two key details: (1) there are more far more tests available in the reopened states than were available in Northeast at the beginning of the pandemic, artificially inflating case counts relative to those of the first-hit states, and (2) the "high" case counts in the reopened states have not been matched by high death counts.

As I previously noted, Florida—with a population bigger than that of New York—has a relatively low per-capita death rate, 425.8. Even in nominal terms, Florida's death count (9,146) barely exceeds that of Massachusetts (8,810). Texas, the second-largest state in the Union, is doing even better with a per-capita death rate of 335.8. Their nominal death count—9,736—is 61% of that of much-smaller New Jersey.

Improved mortality statistics could be the result of better policies vis-a-vis nursing homes, improved treatment options, and declines in the average age of the infected. To the latter point, many of the infections in the reopened states have occurred among the young whereas the cases in the Northeast were concentrated among older age brackets.

The bottom line is clear: Consider the data and the metrics that matter, not preconceived narratives and media headlines. Otherwise, it is easy to succumb to alarmism and drastically misunderstand different states' outcomes.

Note: All statistics and state-by-state comparisons are based on RealClearPolitics' aggregation of coronavirus data as of 12pm on August 15, 2020.

All unsigned FDL Review content is the product of Declan Hurley.