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From: FAIR <[log in to unmask]>
Date: Mon, Mar 23, 2020 at 6:18 PM
Subject: Presenting Trump and Science as Equals Isn’t Balanced, It’s


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Presenting Trump and Science as Equals Isn’t Balanced, It’s Dangerous
Neil deMause

With more than 32,000 COVID-19 infections and 400 deaths
in the US to date, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams predicting
that “this week, it’s going to get bad,” as hospitals prepare for the
eventuality of rationing treatment
for patients least likely to survive, the president of the United States
hit his caps lock key and typed out a tweet


— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2020

The next day’s news coverage (*Bloomberg News*, 3/23/20
*New York Times*, 3/23/20
confirmed what the tweet implied: At the end of March, the White House will
consider lifting recommendations that US residents stay at home and engage
in “social distancing,” in order to get the economy rolling again.

This would, public health experts agree, be a disaster, both in terms of
death toll and as far as having any chance of eventually bringing the
pandemic under control. The Imperial College London’s projections (3/16/20
of the consequences of an unmitigated epidemic are 2.2 million dead in the
US alone, and likely a lot more after taking into account the impact of
overwhelmed hospitals
making it impossible to get care for other health needs.

Meanwhile, public health experts say it’s now too late for short-term
measures to work (*New Yorker*, 3/20/20
with at minimum eight weeks of social distancing and other closures needed
to bring infection rates down to less immediately dangerous levels, with
repeat shutdowns likely necessary in the summer and fall until a vaccine
can be tested and made available (*New York Times*, 3/17/20
Hong Kong has already had to restore more stringent measures just two weeks
after it first lifted restrictions (*CNN*, 3/23/20

Unfortunately, thanks to some of the same journalistic pitfalls that have
undermined news coverage of early phases of the crisis (**, 3/19/20
reporting on Trump’s statements ended up soft-pedaling the dangers of the
economy-first approach, and denying readers important information on what
will likely happen if the White House tries to lift restrictions too soon.
[image: NYT: Trump Says Coronavirus Cure Cannot ‘Be Worse Than the Problem

*The ratio of politicians to coronavirus experts quoted in this New York
Times piece (3/23/20
was 5 to 1.*

As is common in breaking news coverage, most reports took a just-the-facts
approach to the matter, pairing Trump’s statements with disease experts’
warnings, and leaving it to readers to decide whom to believe. The *New
York Times* (3/23/20
for example, led by reprinting Trump’s tweet, then countering it with the
opinion of infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, who serves on the White
House Coronavirus Task Force, that “it would take several more weeks until
people can start going about their lives in a more normal fashion.”

That kind of journalistic balance is problematic enough when it presents
elected officials’ opinions as equally important as those of public health
experts, in the middle of a public health crisis. But as the *Times*
article (by Maggie Haberman
and David Sanger
continued, it tilted even further toward the words of politicians, not
scientists: Those quoted included former Trump homeland security advisor
Thomas Bossert (who called social distancing “imperative”), Treasury
secretary Steven Mnuchin (who described talk of a “complete shutdown of the
economy” as “fake news”), Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham (who said the US
shouldn’t “back off aggressive containment policies”), and anti-tax
advocate and Reagan White House advisor David McIntosh (who said the
government must “put an end to the social distancing some time in the near
future to restore economic activity”). No actual scientists other than
Fauci were cited.

Even on the numbers themselves, the *Times* skewed its coverage toward
fears of an economic downturn: Its article twice cited the millions of job
losses that would result from a long shutdown, but never mentioned the millions
of deaths
likely if the US chooses to lift restrictions too soon.
[image: CNN: Trump itching to scale back social distancing after 15
day-period, aides say]

*CNN's claim (3/23/20
that there are "potentially hundreds of thousands of lives at stake" is a
gross understatement.*

*CNN *(3/23/20
meanwhile, presented some coronavirus projection figures, though they were
almost certainly too low, and framed as a question of exactly what monetary
value to place on human lives:

The dynamic has led to a robust internal debate over how best to balance
the actual health of the country—with potentially hundreds of thousands of
lives at stake—with its economic health.

*CNN* likewise didn’t cite any public health experts, though it did quote
Graham as a critic of Trump’s position, and *Fox News* hosts Laura Ingraham
and Steve Hilton, plus unnamed *Twitter* users, as supporters.

Other coverage took a similar he-said-she-said tone: *The Hill *(3/23/20
noted that Trump’s tweet came “as the number of coronavirus cases in the
United States grows and grows,” but as social distancing policies “are also
having devastating effects, with some projections of 20% or 30%
unemployment in the second quarter.”

*Bloomberg News *(3/23/20
likewise balanced Trump’s position against that of “the government’s top
health authorities” (and the ubiquitous Graham)—though it at least cited
one scientist, Yale School of Public Health epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves,
who said calling for abandoning social distancing to save jobs was
dangerous “zero-sum” thinking:

Epidemiologists are aware of the tradeoffs because they are thinking about
them in their own lives. But to do a knee-jerk response by removing these
measures is short-sighted, short-term thinking that’s going to get us into
deeper trouble.

Economic downturns can be devastating, no doubt—especially if the
consequences fall the hardest on those with the least resources, as is
already being predicted in this case (*Atlantic*, 3/20/20
That’s one reason that experts in poverty and employment—another group
oddly missing from news coverage of Trump’s missives—have called for
immediate government aid to provide housing, healthcare and cash to
low-income Americans (*US News*, 3/19/20
In fact, there’s excellent evidence that concerted government action
following an economic crash can prevent a human toll on the scale that
would result from an unchecked pandemic: Death rates during the Great
Depression did not measurably rise (*Smithsonian*, 3/28/11
despite widespread unemployment.

At the *Columbia Journalism Review *(3/23/20
Jon Allsop has suggested that the problem is that pandemic reporting is
forcing news outlets to seek a balance between two contrasting journalistic

Increasingly, journalists interacting with public officials must strike a
difficult balancing act—between aggressive scrutiny of missteps and
misstatements, which is always our job, and the effective communication and
amplification of government public-health guidelines, which has rarely, if
ever, felt so urgent.

Yet those two tasks—reporting on public-health warnings, and factchecking
elected officials—aren’t really at odds: They’re both part of the same core
journalistic responsibility of informing readers on what’s true and what’s
not. (And, when the exact truth can’t be determined, at least making clear
which sources are more qualified to know better.) But in the middle of a
public health crisis, the beliefs of elected officials and those of disease
experts shouldn’t be presented as if they carry equal weight. Stopping the
coronavirus pandemic from taking millions of lives may require news
organizations to take sides—but if it’s on the side of science, that’s the
kind of bias that journalism needs.
Read more

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