In my world, data matters. I like advanced calculus. I love numbers and data and statistics. I have a degree in engineering, and I spent the first 10 years of my career as a quality assurance engineer in the defense industry. That’s right, I like to geek out. I only bring this up to point out that I have a unique perspective on the stories peddled by the Washington establishment. I bring my analytical perspective to policy debates, politics, and the cynical ways the media spins both.
I understand how pollsters and journalists and self-proclaimed “experts” manipulate data and statistics to tell the story they want you to hear.
Since the lockdown started, I start every morning with a cappuccino and the Washington Post. (I know, I’m a masochist.) Since COVID-19 started, the Post has published a daily “Guide to the Pandemic,” generously posted in front of their pay wall to anyone who wants to read it. They include graphs and charts and their narrative “explaining” the data that is presented.
On the top page, as viewed on my iPad, are graphs showing cases per capita (per 100,000 residents) for states with the highest seven-day average, along with a U.S. overall chart. The heading is: “Places with Highest Daily Reported Cases per Capita.” That’s right, no matter the overall trends, positive or negative, the Post highlights the very worst states. Fear sells. If it bleeds, it leads, as the saying goes. There are scary charts of North and South Dakota, Missouri and Iowa. Some of these states are seeing declining COVID cases, but the pictures are still ominous.
Imagine an alternate universe, one of positive, encouraging news, one where the WaPo headline actually reads: “Twenty Six States Report Daily Cases of Ten or Less per Hundred Thousand Residents.” Or, better yet: “Thirty Seven States Plus the District of Columbia Show a Decrease in the Number of Reported Cases.”
And do you remember Arizona? It was horrible. Story after story reported that the COVID case numbers spiked to a high moving average of 3,844 reported cases per 100,000 residents. But on September 12th, the moving average of cases was 605. That’s a decrease of 84%. Now that would be a grabby headline: “COVID Cases in Arizona Plummet by 84 Percent.”
And these are just the “cases.” What really matters is lives lost to COVID-19. I’m in no way discounting the tragic deaths due to this pandemic. But, objectively, the worst of it seems behind us. Yet there is no way you would know this if you just accept the WaPo narrative. On September 13th, their article reported: “The average daily death toll had declined from more than 2,000 per day in April to 456 per day in early July. But as people began to resume more normal activities, new COVID-19 cases soared, and deaths soon followed. By August, the virus was killing an average of more than 1,000 people each day.”
But what about what has happened since August? They don’t mention that, because it doesn’t fit their narrative. On September 12th, the average deaths were 734. At the peak on April 21, the death rate was 2,856. That’s a 74% decrease from the worst day. Why on earth isn’t this the headline? Or, at least, part of the story?
And yes I know that this number is still 38% higher than the lowest number, but the trend is definitely in the right direction. I’m honest enough to report both sides of the data.
In a small nod to reporting facts, the Post (buried deep in the article) does report trends from the last week. They state that new daily reported cases fell 14% and that deaths fell 13.2%. These numbers are great, but certainly don’t get the attention they deserve. The phrase “bury the lede” seems appropriate here.
There are a lot of theories as to why the mainstream media is reporting on COVID-19 this way. Of course, fear sells. And then there are the political motivations—the presidential election, the opportunity for mind-boggling expansions of government authority during the pandemic, and the rationalizing of political lockdowns that have harmed people on so many personal and economic levels.
But I’m not here to editorialize on them. As Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday would insist, I’m here to report “Just the facts, ma’am.”
At Free the People, we believe that story telling is the way to change the hearts and minds of people. In this case, the numbers tell a story, just not one that is being reported.