Nate Silver rips media for reporting rise in coronavirus cases without providing key context

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Nate Silver is calling out the establishment media for reporting a ‘rise’ in coronavirus cases nationwide without providing proper context — namely, that the number of cases is increasing because more COVID-19 testing is being done.

The FiveThirtyEight editor noted in a tweet that the media has committed a “basic error” by reporting the rise in cases out of context, which he says is “revealing about the media’s goals.”

“It’s more interested in telling plausibly-true stories (“narratives”) that sound smart to its audience than in accuracy/truth per se,” he added.

Silver was commenting on a tweet from New Yorker writer James Surowiecki, who blasted Axios and The New York Times for pushing the rise in coronavirus cases without also noting the rise in testing.

“Axios does a piece highlighting the growth in cases outside NY, and, just like the NYT, doesn’t even mention the fact that at least some of that growth in recent weeks is the result of the sharp increase in testing. Just unbelievable,” Surowiecki observed

Silver added in a follow-up tweet, “That doesn’t mean it’s just making stuff up or engaging in fake news. On the contrary, the facts it relays are generally accurate in isolation. But the problems are in how facts are strung together and emphasized. Often there are sins of omission (e.g. no context on testing).”

The Axios piece claimed that the U.S. was now lagging behind Europe in terms of recovering from the pandemic because of the “number of new cases every day … not going down.”

Silver’s attention led Axios to add this ‘correction’ to its report: “This story has been updated to clarify that increased testing could be part of the reason the number of cases in the U.S. is rising.”

The Times, however, not so much.

Under the headline, “As Trump Pushes to Reopen, Government Sees Virus Toll Nearly Doubling,” the paper claimed:

As President Trump presses states to reopen their economies, his administration is privately projecting a steady rise in coronavirus infections and deaths over the next several weeks, reaching about 3,000 daily deaths on June 1 — nearly double the current level.

In the story, Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration head under President Donald Trump, was quoted as saying on CBS’ “Face the Nation” earlier this month, “While mitigation didn’t fail, I think it’s fair to say that it didn’t work as well as we expected. We expected that we would start seeing more significant declines in new cases and deaths around the nation at this point. And we’re just not seeing that.”

But that’s because we’re doing more testing, something the president himself noted Wednesday in a meeting with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.

“The media likes to say we have the most cases, but we do, by far, the most testing. If we did very little testing, we wouldn’t have the most cases. So, in a way, by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad,” he said.

According to the nonprofit COVID Tracking Project, 708,711 tests were conducted in the U.S. during the last week in March. That figure is fewer than half the 1,567,068 tests performed during the final week of April.

But as more testing is done, the percentage of “positives” is dropping as well: 12.7 percent in the last week of April compared to 18.7 percent in the corresponding final week of March.

All of which has led Silver to note, “Trump has figured this out! By focusing on case counts, the media creates disincentives to do more testing because it makes the numbers look superficially worse. One reason (not the only one) why we’re not pushing for testing as much as we should.”

One final thing. The Times’ figure of 3,000 deaths per day by June 1 is a fabrication, according to the White House.

“This is not a White House document nor has it been presented to the Coronavirus Task Force or gone through interagency vetting,” White House spokesman Judd Deere told NBC News following publication of the story. “This data is not reflective of any of the modeling done by the task force or data that the task force has analyzed.”


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