Among the strangest stories in a year full of strange stories was the toilet paper hoarding. It will stand out as an unprecedented oddity of the COVID-19 crisis. In those early days, we knew so very …
Among the strangest stories in a year full of strange stories was the toilet paper hoarding. It will stand out as an unprecedented oddity of the COVID-19 crisis. In those early days, we knew so very little about the disease and we were all worried how this whole pandemic would pan out. Models at the time were predicting there would be 2 million deaths in the United States by now. No one was sure how it spread or what precautions would be effective. In the midst of all that uncertainty, hoarding toilet paper was a small comfort. No matter what happens, at least you have toilet paper.
We know a lot more now. The death toll by Nov. 1 is expected to be a little more than 10% of the original 2 million estimate. Deaths are largely limited to people with certain health conditions, and masks and social distancing offer fairly reliable means to stem the spread of the disease until a vaccine is widely available, which will probably happen some time next year.
The risk COVID-19 poses is not something to dismiss, but it’s also not quite as terrifying as we originally thought. You’d never know that from some national news outlets, however.
Consider an Aug. 18 ABC News segment that declared “US reports highest single-day of COVID-19 deaths.” The claim is not only flat wrong, as the anchor reported nearly 1,500 deaths in a single day, there was a graphic shown that stated accurately that it was the highest “since mid-May.” When your own graphics prove you wrong, you’ve failed as a news outlet.
The New York Times ran a story in July under the headline: “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.” You would think with a headline like that, there were thousands of churchgoers coming down with the disease. Actually, the Times reporter found 650 cases at “nearly 40 churches and religious events.” At the time, there were about 3.1 million confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., meaning the Times considered 0.02% of the total cases to be a “major source of coronavirus cases.” And with about 385,000 churches nationwide, it’s hard to figure out how the Times considered a few dozen to be a significant source at all.
In an Aug. 10 story, the Times claimed that “without more aggressive shutdowns,” the U.S. might see over a million people die. The story doesn’t cite any source for that estimate, and it’s utterly absurd. Independent data scientist Youyang Gu has provided some of the most accurate predictions of COVID-19 fatalities. His projections currently estimate we’ll see about 224,000 deaths by Nov. 1. Those estimates will have to be off by a factor of four for the Times report to be correct.
Even when national media outlets are being accurate, many still present news in the scariest tones possible. Consider an NBC report on Aug. 13 with the headline “U.S. reports highest COVID-19 fatalities in two weeks, but real death toll could be higher.” That is technically true, but with such a small time frame, this would be true just about every day from early February to late April, and early July until today.
These are just a few examples of the exaggerations and inaccuracies reported at some of the nation’s largest news outlets, during the most pressing national crisis since 9/11. In light of the national news coverage, maybe hoarding toilet paper makes sense. Considering what we’re being served, it’s hard to have too much.