Under the best of circumstances, reporting on COVID-19 is tough. There are simply too many unknowns, and even when officials aren't manipulating the truth they aren't always willing to cop to the fact that they really don't have solid answers.
But there's really no excuse for journalism as sloppy and misleading as the August 13 ABC News segment whose headline blared "US reports highest single-day of COVID-19 deaths." This video was widely shared, appearing not just on the main ABC News site, but also on Good Morning America, MSN.com, and elsewhere. And it simply wasn't true.
In it, the anchor solemnly intones that the "United States is reporting the highest number of deaths in a single day—nearly 1,500" while a graphic briefly but completely undercuts her point. The graphic at least points out an important qualifier: The 1,490 deaths represent the deadliest day "since mid-May." In fact, according to The New York Times' count, the seven-day rolling average number of deaths in April was double what the current numbers are. If you look at the graphic, you can see that peak deaths plainly occurred months ago. But such attention to such an enormously important detail goes completely missing in the ABC segment, and a less-than-attentive viewer could be forgiven for thinking that the country was in fact experiencing record-setting COVID-19 deaths right now.
A similarly misleading story came courtesy of Bloomberg yesteday, which tweeted this clickbait morsel: "JUST IN: Malaysia detects new coronavirus strain that's 10 times more infectious." The story itself was originally titled "Malaysia Detects Coronavirus Strain That's 10 Times More Infectious."
The headline has since been changed to the less incendiary, "Southeast Asia Detects Mutated Virus Strain Sweeping the World," possibly because the article never supported those fearful claims. If you read the piece, you'd learn that the strain being discussed actually "is the predominant variant in Europe and the U.S." and that "there's no evidence from the epidemiology that the mutation is considerably more infectious than other strains," according to an epidemiologist cited in the story. There is a suggestion that it "is said to have a higher possibility of transmission or infectiousness," but there is in fact no evidence that the strain is either new or particularly bad.
The COVID-19 story is a tough one, with new information emerging all the time. But the media, never infallible in the first place, seem increasingly prone to running stories that are not even internally consistent but instead are a hodgepodge of anxiety and apocalypticism. Under such circumstances, it's more important than ever to develop razor-sharp media-literacy and bullshit-detection skills. Whether or not a coronavirus vaccine ever arrives, but can at least inoculate ourselves against the more obvious failures of the Fourth Estate.