When it comes to reports on increases in coronavirus transmission, the devil seems to be in the details.
Nate Silver, the editor of FiveThirtyEight.com, called out reports in the New York Times and Axios that said coronavirus cases in the U.S. were increasing without mentioning that there has been a drastic increase in testing across the country.
“Not providing context on the increase in testing is such a basic error, and has been so widespread, that it’s revealing about the media’s goals,” he tweeted. “It’s more interested in telling plausibly-true stories (“narratives”) that sound smart to its audience than in accuracy/truth per se.”
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His tweet was in response to New Yorker writer, James Surowiecki, who called out Axios and the Times. Surowiecki pointed to reports on the “growth in cases outside” New York and said the two reports don’t even “mention the fact that at least some of that growth in recent weeks is the result of the sharp increase in testing. Just unbelievable.”
The Axios report was since updated with an editor’s note that said the story was updated to include the increase in testing that “could be part of the reason the number of cases in the U.S. is rising.”
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Many elements about the coronavirus and its effect on that health of the population remains a mystery. The disease, which could be fatal in some cases, could also be asymptomatic, so carriers may not even know they’re infected to be tested. Health officials have stressed that until there’s herd immunity or a cure, social distancing measures will be required.
There have been questions about how the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention is tallying the virus’ death toll. Some doctors say the guidelines are far too broad and many deaths being blamed on COVID-19 may have little to do with the disease.
The Axios report said that, considering the numbers, are “beating back their outbreaks more successfully than the U.S.”
President Trump has spoken out on these comparisons with other countries. He said the U.S. is testing far more individuals for the virus than those in Europe. The Axios report said the U.S. rate of infection appears to have stagnated at about 30,000 new cases a day.
Surowiecki was challenged on social media by those who say that the data quality is low and the best chance to track might be confirmed deaths. The New Yorker writer responded, “Honestly, at this point simply mentioning the fact that increased testing can be partially responsible for an increase in the number of cases counts as good practice.”