CNBC under fire for ‘dangerous, misleading headline’ on COVID spread

CNBC and other media outlets are under fire for running with an allegedly misleading and potentially dangerous headline about a study on COVID-19.

CNBC’s full headline reads: “MIT researchers say you’re no safer from Covid indoors at 6 feet or 60 feet in new study challenging social distancing policies.” The Hill also ran with the headline slightly modified: “MIT researchers: Risk of contracting COVID-19 indoors the same at 6ft and 60ft.”

Many are claiming that the CNBC headline does not accurately reflect what the study indicates.

The headline seemingly lacks context and is purportedly leaving out important facts. The reference in question states: “These models are all based on the premise that the space of interest is well mixed; thus, the pathogen is distributed uniformly throughout. In such well-mixed spaces, one is no safer from airborne pathogens at 60 ft than 6 ft.”

But prior to that, the study also noted: “The theoretical model developed herein informs the risk of airborne transmission resulting from the inhalation of small, aerosol droplets that remain suspended for extended periods within closed, well-mixed indoor spaces.”

That would seem to indicate that the length of exposure determines whether distancing is effective and that ventilation plays a significant factor in the spread of the virus.

CNBC is refusing to tweak their headline to more accurately portray what the study actually concludes as proposed by experts. Senior Editor Dawn Kopecki stated via Twitter in response to being blasted for the headline by UNC Professor and writer for The Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci: “I’m sorry you don’t agree with the study’s conclusions, but if you read the full article you will see that the headline and article are accurate. That is what they told us.”

Tufekci took CNBC to task for their headline phrasing: “Before this gets out of hand. ‘Distance doesn’t matter’ IS NOT what ‘it’s airborne’ or primarily aerosol-transmitted means or implies, and the headline is not reflecting correctly a modeling paper they are using says. Calling in @linseymarr and @jljcolorado among others.”

She went on to state: “What’s true is that in a ‘well-mixed’ room (VERY IMPORTANT ASSUMPTION IN THE MODEL IN THAT PAPER BEING REPORTED ON), if you spend long enough time, distance isn’t *completely* protective which IS NOT AT ALL THE same as ‘distance doesn’t matter’ or that 6 and 60 feet are the same.”

Tufekci went on to explain in the thread: “Perhaps the most important misunderstanding has been assuming aerosols=long distance only. No, they do not teleport from a person to over two feet away a la ‘beam it over there, Scotty.’ Aerosols ALSO concentrate around the person and dilute with distance.”

“I’d suggest that it doesn’t help to jump from ‘distance isn’t fully protective especially if you sit long enough in an enclosed space where the air keeps mixing’ to headlines like ‘6 feet and 60 feet are the same!’. Again @linseymarr and others have great work on this,” she noted.

The professor and expert continued: “Another from an expert. Of course aerosol concentration dilutes with distance (and very quickly outdoors for obvious reasons!) but if the space is enclosed, they can keep accumulating, and ‘6 feet’ isn’t some magic bubble—especially if you stay long enough.”

She concluded by stating: “Adding. It goes without saying that I’m just a vehicle here, reflecting years of research on this topic by many scientists. I’d like that headline corrected, at a minimum, though, @RichMendezCNBC. Telling people distance doesn’t matter at all isn’t okay.”

Tufekci ended her argument with: “A good many people in this field, who acknowledge and have published on airborne transmission for years, are in this thread explaining the problem. I could recommend more. Could you check with them and others before telling people that a life-saving mitigation is useless?”

Kopecki adamantly refused to back down and stated in another response to Tufekci: “We would love to talk with them, but this story wasn’t about their opinions, it was about the conclusions of the MIT researchers.”


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