TUESDAY, JANUARY 19, 2021
"It's something you don't grow out of:" We'll start with something that doesn't matter, except to the extent that it does.
It appears on page A1 of this morning's New York Times. Essentially, it serves as a headline atop a highly significant news report. This is what it says:
2,048 deaths were reported on Jan. 4 alone.
In print editions, that slightly peculiar statement is cast in the role of a virtual headline atop a highly visible front-page news report.
The report, by Amy Harmon and three others, concerns an extremely significant topic—the rapidly increasing number of deaths in the United States from Covid-19.
It's possible that the number of deaths will continue to grow until vaccination reins it in. The strange thing about the number in that virtual headline is the fact that the number's so small.
According to that semi-headline, 2,048 Covid deaths were reported "on Jan. 4 alone." Based on that construction, a reader might think that 2,048 was a strikingly large number of deaths for one single day.
In fact, the 7-day average on January 4 was-—according to the New York Times' daily data—2,656 reported deaths per day. In fact, the number of reported deaths on January 4 was substantially lower than the daily average which prevailed at that time.
The 7-day average has continued to climb, almost to this very day. Consider:
After yesterday's reporting was done, the 7-day average stood at a truly horrible 3,225 reported deaths per day. On the tiniest of bright sides, that average was actually lower than the average had been the day before.
In fact, within the Times data, the 7-day average reached its highest point on January 12, when it stood at 3,352 reported deaths per day. Since then, the average has been nosing down. This may represent a change for the better, or it may be a type of statistical glitch.
Reporting on the number of daily deaths has been all over the ballpark. We've noted the way major stars like Jake Tapper and Rachel Maddow seem to cherry-pick the numbers they report, always finding ways to present the largest possible number of deaths.
This morning, on page A1, the Times went in the other direction. At a glance, the paper seemed to suggest that 2,048 reported deaths would be a terrible number for a single day.
In fact, our failing nation has a long way to go to get back down to any such number of daily deaths! Just over two thousand deaths per day? One can only wish!
Why did the Times choose to go with that particular number and with that particular date? Presumably, because the human interest stories they wanted to tell track to that particular date. With apologies to the family in question, today's report starts like this:
HARMON ET AL (1/19/21): It was 3 a.m. when Latraile Williams was startled from her sleep in her family’s Gainesville, Fla., home with a phone call. The voice on the other end, the doctor, sounded urgent, his words coming in slow bursts. Her husband of 23 years had very little time left. “Dear God,” she began to pray. “Dear God, give me strength.”
Ten minutes later, she received a second call. It was too late.
Her husband, Stacey Williams, a beloved youth football coach and father of five, had died from complications of Covid-19. All that was left was for her to replay the cellphone video that he had made from his hospital bed.
The late Stacey Williams, a good, decent person, lost his life on January 4. "On [that] one single day...Mr. Williams was among more than 2,000 Americans with the virus to die," the Times reports, making a statistical claim which is almost surely though not necessarily correct.
Across the country, how many people died on Covid-19 on January 4? We know of no way to answer that question. As with most other data sets, the New York Times data set reports that 2,048 Covid deaths were reported on that day, not that 2,048 Covid deaths actually occurred.
Such distinctions are routinely lost in the haze as the nation's major news orgs stress human interest Covid stories while underplaying the explanation of basic facts.
This morning, the Times report doesn't explain the distinction between "reported" and "occurred." Beyond that, it leads with a daily number which actually seems to understate the number of Covid deaths now occurring on a daily basis—to the extent that we can know what that number actually is.
Nothing turns on the number the New York Times chose to feature. For the record, here are a few 7-day averages as the death rate has grown like Topsy over the past few months:
Reported Covid deaths per day, 7-day averages
November 1: 825
December 1: 1,541
January 1: 2,513
January 16: 3,319
We're using the New York Times data. Click here, scroll down to "New reported deaths per day."
The growth in those numbers has been obscene since November 1. In the past few days, the number has begun to nose down, although we don't know why.
As a general matter, news orgs prefer to go with human interest first. Explanations and basic statistics will possibly tend to lag.
In the past several months, the rise in reported deaths per day has been obscene. We were struck by the (possibly somewhat) misleading number on page A1 today.
In a somewhat similar way, we were struck by several things Rachel Maddow said last Thursday night. Also, by quite a few things which didn't get said that night.
Maddow was talking about the past, and possibly current, water crisis in Flint. Since she was imagining some of the others going to jail, she was at her happiest.
Maddow tends to cherry-pick and embellish the nation's Covid death counts. Last Thursday night, in the first twenty minutes of a 26-minute opening monologue, she chose to make exciting remarks about the children of Flint.
She started by referring to "Flint, Michigan's lead poisoning disaster—that man-made disaster when Rick Snyder's state government poisoned an entire city with lead."
"An entire city" had been poisoned, Maddow excitingly said. As for Snyder, he was "the man who ran the government that flipped the switch that pushed the button to poison Flint."
(We can't give you a link. Perhaps for obvious reasons, MSNBC no longer prepares public transcripts.)
Earlier that day, Snyder had been charged with two misdemeanors for his alleged role in the water crisis. In twenty minutes, the word "misdemeanor" never crossed Maddow's lips. Nor did she ever mention the penalty Snyder could face.
Along the way, she did make the statements shown below. Statements like these affect the future of the children of Flint:
MADDOW (1/14/21): That disastrous water switch, and the refusal to listen to the people of Flint about its consequences, led to the mass poisoning of every kid in the city of Flint—the mass poisoning of the people of that city. Thousands of kids who will live for the rest of their lives with the consequences of having been poisoned by lead early in their life—having lead exposure in their drinking water when they're kids.
It's something you don't grow out of. It's something for which there is no magic antidote.
The mass poisoning was now specific to "every kid in the city of Flint," the grand inquisitor said. Flint's kids will never grow out of what happened, they and their parents were told.
We aren't fans of Maddow's work at this particular site. We regard her as a victim of celebrity and corporate wealth—as an example of what can easily happen when the rewards are too damn high at profit-based, corporate "news orgs."
As a general matter, the children of Flint won't have to deal with the problems of wealth and fame. But what about Maddow's excited claims on this particular night?
How accurate were her claims about the mass "poisoning" of the children of Flint? How accurate were her gloomy suggestions about their ruined futures?
Beyond that, how many elementary facts had the cable star failed to state? How many statistics were swept down the drain as she went with her thrilling oration?
Who has been harming the children of Flint? On the assumption that such children matter, we'll discuss that key question all week.
Tomorrow: The disappeared