Lack of elementary journalistic/analytical skill: In yesterday's post, we should have mentioned the difference between the dueling front-page headlines.
We mentioned the struggles in the New York Times. We didn't mention the Washington Post. Below, you see the dueling front-page headlines from the two major newspapers:
New York Times headlines (online):The New York Times still wasn't sure that the nationwide decline in deaths had ended. The Washington Post was willing to say that the death toll was rising again.
Daily Virus Death Toll Rises in Some States
In several states where the virus has surged in recent weeks, the death toll is edging up. That may end a long period in which the national toll has steadily declined.
Washington Post headline (print edition):
Once falling, daily death toll from virus rises anew
(It was clear, within its report, that the Post was referring to the nationwide death toll.)
As of this morning, the 7-day rolling average stands at 673.6 deaths per day nationwide. That's where the nationwide average stood way back on Bloomsday—way back on June 16, almost a month ago.
As of yesterday morning, it was already easy to say that the decline had ended. As of today, it's hard to deny that daily deaths actually seem to be rising:
(On the morning of July 1, the average number of daily deaths stood at 538.7. Today, the 7-day average is roughly 25 percent higher than that.)
As of yesterday morning, the New York Times still wasn't ready to say that the decline was over. Then too, there was CNN's July 9 report, a rebroadcast of which we watched on CNN last night.
At issue is the lack of statistical sophistication within our upper-end press corps. By "lack of statistical sophistication," we actually mean lack of the most elementary journalistic / analytical skills.
Remember, this is anthropology! We don't mean this as a criticism of the essential decency, or the essential worth, of the individuals involved.
But Thursday night's brief report about Brazil featured a rolling and remarkable lack of basic journalistic skill. Anderson Cooper led it off, and then he threw to Bill Weir:
COOPER (7/9/20): More now on Brazil and President Bolsonaro, who has mocked the virus and was infected by it. Sadly, his was just one of tens of thousands of new cases in recent days.Weir continued a bit from there. In fairness, the journalists remembered to say that the cases and the deaths were not only "sad" but were also "tragic."
Brazil now ranks second only to the United States in confirmed cases and in deaths, and in the hills outside Sao Paulo, drone footage tells the story:
Row after row of newly prepared graves. None likely will stay empty for long. The way things are going, none will be the last.
CNN's Bill Weir is in the capital city, Brasilia. He joins us now. So Bill, what's the latest there and what's being done to try to deal with this spread?
WEIR: Well, the latest, Anderson—about another 40,000 or so confirmed cases and another 1,100 fatalities. They are closing in on close to 70,000 tragic deaths due to COVID-19.
But the testing here, you've got to keep in mind, is one-sixth of what's happening in the United States. So most experts think those numbers are vastly under-reported by a factor of 10.
And as we've seen, and as we've been discussing, you know, from South Korea to Sweden, this virus has really laid bare the strength of communities and the smarts of the people in charge. And it's no coincidence, I suppose, that number one and number two, and the worst categories these days, are led by sort of cult-of-personality leaders...
Still, consider what had been said:
Cooper fails to adjust: As he started, Cooper said this: "Brazil now ranks second only to the United States in confirmed cases and in deaths."
That's true, but only if we're talking about total numbers of confirmed cases and deaths to date. But if we make an obvious statistical adjustment—if we adjust for total numbers to date per million people—that statement isn't accurate.
(Would that statement be true if we were talking about current death rates per million people—average daily deaths per million? We have no idea, and you can be fairly sure that Cooper doesn't know either.
Bill Weir does adjust: Cooper was telling the preferred story, in which the United States is worst in the world under Trump.
Now, though, when Cooper threw to Weir, Weir made the type of adjustment for population Cooper hadn't made, although he didn't say so.
Weir started by saying this: "The testing [in Brazil] is one-sixth of what's happening in the United States." Based in part on a look at the data, we're assuming he meant the total number of tests to date, although he didn't specify.
The number of tests in Brazil, to date, is one-sixth the number of tests in the United States? That's true if you adjust for population. If you deal in absolute numbers, the number of tests in Brazil to date is one-eleventh the number in the United States.
(What's the current level of daily testing in these two large nations? We have no idea. Neither does anyone relying on CNN for information.)
Now we hit Weir's most striking statement. Based upon other things one hears on TV, this only creates confusion:
"The testing here...is one-sixth of what's happening in the United States. So most experts think those numbers are vastly under-reported by a factor of 10."Most experts think the actual number of cases in Brazil is ten times the reported number? That assessment may be accurate, though we have no way of knowing.
That said, a few nights earlier, that's exactly what Dr. Irwin Redlener told Brian Williams about the actual number of cases in the United States! Redlener seemed to be applying an earlier statement by Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the CDC.
With this, we offer a warning:
When you watch cable news, you're hearing Storyline. There's a vastly lesser interest in reliable, clear information.
For Cooper, the current storyline is this: Under President Donald J. Trump, everything here is the worst.
That's the basic storyline Cooper wants viewers to hear. For that reason, viewers are sarcastically told that we're number one in the world when it comes to deaths. Viewers are never shown such basic statistics as these:
Total deaths from coronavirus, per million population, as of July 12:Using Weir's language, the U.S. and Brazil are only "number one and number two" in the world if you don't adjust for size of population. In fairness, that depends on what Weir was actually talking about, which remained unclear for every viewer and even, perhaps, for Bill Weir.
United Kingdom: 660
United States: 415
[Chile, Netherlands, Peru, Ireland]
Make no mistake! Before this whole disaster is done, the United States may well be number one for deaths even adjusted for population. We say that because our daily deaths have started to rise once again, while many other countries seem to have wrestled daily deaths to the ground.
It would be interesting to see Cooper convey such elementary information to CNN's viewers. But CNN, and especially Cooper, have long since ceased to focus on the reporting of information, even basic information.
Cooper is almost all storyline now. He opens with sarcasm, and he rarely lets up. He's become a parody of a journalist—but as they say on cable TV, "This is CNN."
Meanwhile, at the Times, they still weren't sure if the decline in deaths was over! For what it's worth, the lead reporter for the report which generated those headlines is a Harvard grad.
Eventually, the Times report said this. We're prepared to believe that the editor did it:
Some officials have attributed the drop in deaths over the last few months to improvements in treatment for the virus. Doctors have more tools today than they did in the spring, including the use of remdesivir, an anti-viral drug that has been shown to shorten hospital stays though not reduce fatalities.The drop in deaths has been attributed to treatments like remdesivir, an anti-viral drug which doesn't reduce fatalities! So it goes at the very top of our remarkable press corps.
The United States is, indeed, involved in a rolling disaster. All roads from that rolling disaster lead back to Donald J. Trump.
That said, Cooper's a bit of a rolling disaster too. Ask yourself two questions:
First question: To what extent does our actual number of new daily cases exceed our reported number of new daily cases?
It would be interesting to see that question hashed out. Unfortunately, that question lies several light years beyond the verdant planets, Sarcasm and Storyline, where Cooper now makes his homes.
Second question: How does our nation's current number of daily deaths (adjusted for population) compare to current numbers from other nations?
Those statistics would be grossly embarrassing for the United States. Those numbers would illustrate the size of our disastrous failure to function under President Donald J. Trump.
That said, you'll never see those numbers on CNN, and you aren't likely to see them in the Times. Those numbers would represent real information, and people like Cooper are happy to laze along feeding you pure storyline.
Put another way, those numbers would be hard. Cable news likes it easy.
CNN's multimillionaire hosts have amazingly few analytical skills. At present, the channel is serving you two major products: Sarcasm, Storyline.
Plus, those deaths are tragic and sad. They remember to inform us of that, as any sharp analysts would.
Full disclosure: We offer this as anthropology. This is the way our species actually functions, or so major experts have said.