Presenting Trump and Science as Equals Isn’t Balanced, It’s Dangerous
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:
WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!
— 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 (FAIR.org, 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.
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.
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 roles:
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.