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📰 News outlets should not publish pandemic misinformation 🔍
NPR manufacturing controversy to “both sides” an ongoing medical crisis is bad journalism and dangerous public health messaging.
Leading with the bad information both with the headline and within the article is promoting misinformation. What’s the opposite of a truth sandwich? Because that’s what they did. Please join me in petitioning NPR to retract the article that’s a clear threat to public health messaging.
Even better, you can also send this letter or your own letter directly to NPR yourself: https://help.npr.org/contact/s/contact?request=Comment-on-something-I-read
Reference the article URL (copy/paste): https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/09/16/1122650502/scientists-debate-how-lethal-covid-is-some-say-its-now-less-risky-than-flu
And if you want to go one more step, if you’re a PBS member, write to your local PBS station that carries NPR about it: https://www.pbs.org/
To NPR & Rob Stein: Please retract dangerous pandemic misinformation
In the midst of a lethal ongoing pandemic where SARS-CoV-2 deaths outpace even bad flu seasons, NPR ran a piece that led with the incorrect claim that COVID is "no more dangerous than the flu" with a headline asserting that the lethality of the virus is "up for debate" when there is in fact no debate about level of deaths rocking our nation.
The article is blatant misinformation and should be retracted and corrected by Rob Stein and NPR.
Dr. Anthony Fauci’s factually true statement was presented, too late in the article, and as a mere rebuttal.
“The severity of one compared to the other is really quite stark. And the potential to kill of one versus the other is really quite stark."
This is not up for debate, the facts are clear.
In August of 2022, COVID killed 6,000 in the United States, Flu killed 20. Over the 2+ years of the pandemic, COVID killed one million people in the USA. In the same timeframe, flu has killed less than 7,000. In January of 2021, COVID killed one hundred thousand. Flu killed seventy In January of 2022, COVID killed seventy thousand. Flu four hundred. Last month COVID killed six thousand Flu killed twenty.
NPR, PLEASE retract your story. You are hurting people with confusing and incorrect public health messaging.
Leading with the misinformation both with the headline and within the article is promoting misinformation. Experienced journalists and editors should know better.
And perhaps they are familiar with the concept of the truth sandwich and the halo effect, but instead chose to go for controversy for clicks & eyeballs. If so, this is a poor choice because this isn’t a video game twitch stream — this is NPR, a trusted news outlet, and this is a public health threat, where lives are on the line.
Even if there were questions, it’s a dangerous gamble to publish an article that leads with promoting complacency at this juncture.
But the assertions were lies. There’s no natural herd immunity as this doctor implied. We see that with our own eyes as many are on their 2rd and 3rd infections, sometimes just since 2022 began. And the vaccines, while offering evidenced benefits, also have not created herd immunity nor individual immunity against transmission. The vaccines, as designed in their trials, reduce the chances of symptomatic severity, but don’t wholly prevent all adverse outcomes — and even if they did: too big a portion of Americans are not even vaccinated! The hospitals and the funeral homes are still stressed.
This doctor in the interview with the false claim that the danger of the pandemic has passed, has also been wrong before in predicting the danger has passed. Multiple times this doctor has made incorrect predictions of “it’s over” sometimes right as another surge was clearly brewing. It’s now practically a sick joke where people say: whatever this person says — assume the opposite must be true!
Such a dark track record.
The most notorious of these false predictions was incorrectly speculating that India had reached herd immunity from natural infection, just before the country was absolutely devastated by the Delta crush, with a wave of unthinkable human suffering.
It’s curious how continually wrong people fail upwards and onwards and are continually invited back to be wrong again.
Understanding the halo effect
So why do we let one aspect dominate the entire story? After people form an initial impression of someone, they try to prove it right because they don’t want to face cognitive dissonance and cognitive consistency seems like an easier option. Also, sometimes it is difficult to evaluate different qualities in isolation and people end up resorting to the more unchallenging option of assessing on the basis of the most visible trait. How the halo effect makes us use judgment heuristics or mental shortcuts, is overtly simple to understand yet we unconsciously let it cloud our views. This might tempt you to jump to the conclusion that someone smart would never fall for this. Ironically, a study shows that participants who scored higher on an IQ test were more susceptible to the halo error.
What’s wrong with regular old mythbusting, you ask? Just picture this chilling chain of events:
A user lands on a webpage designed to dispel myths about COVID-19.
They skim right over the word “myth” and see: “Drinking bleach can cure COVID-19.”
Then they get a text/their doorbell rings/their cat jumps onto their neck and they never make it down to the part of the page explaining that no, drinking bleach can’t cure COVID. But it sure can kill you!
This rather extreme example shows why we usually let the facts speak for themselves — and avoid restating dangerous myths in our health content. But when a truly treacherous piece of false information just keeps circulating, sometimes you’ve got to squash it head-on.
Enter: the truth sandwich.
Don’t lead (headline, first paragraph) with the distortion or lie or rant or discreditable accusation.
Go to the big picture underlying it, and synthesize a headline that shows that dynamic to the public.
Ascertain the details that are likely to have precipitated this particular politician into saying this, and then present the lie in that context and debunk it. In this way, you are still reporting the truth (even when there are multiple perspectives on it), rather than amplifying (or giving oxygen to) the lie.
Kahneman102 also clarifies how sequence matters—that is, a ‘halo effect’ increases the weight of first impressions or the first entry on a list, to the point where subsequent information is discarded. Kahneman103 explains this mental shortcut as a combination of the coherence-seeking System 1 thought process generating intuitive impressions, which a lazy System 2 then endorses and believes.
1. Start with the truth. The first frame gets the advantage. 2. Indicate the lie. Avoid amplifying the specific language if possible. 3. Return to the truth. Always repeat truths more than lies. Hear more in Ep 14 of FrameLab w/@gilduran76