Recently, a research paper concluded that the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, in August, caused the spread of 260,000 new cases of coronavirus. Deeming the rally a “super …
Recently, a research paper concluded that the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, in August, caused the spread of 260,000 new cases of coronavirus. Deeming the rally a “super spreading” event, the paper estimated that the healthcare costs of Sturgis was $12.2 billion. Unwilling to let a good sensational narrative go to waste, the national media reported the findings with little scrutiny or skepticism.
No, the Sturgis rally didn’t cause 260,000 people to contract the coronavirus. To put it simply, the research paper, which wasn’t peer reviewed, used cellphone data to track the movement of those who attended the rally and then assumed that new spikes in cases in areas where the attendees went after the event were caused by their attendance. Yet, there was no particular evidence of any such connection.
To arrive at the $12.2 billion public cost of the event, the researchers assumed that everyone of those 260,000 people accrued $46,000 in hospitalization costs, which would only make sense if the rate of hospitalization for those who contract the disease was 100%. According to CDC figures, the rate isn’t even 1% for those 65 and older, the most vulnerable age group.
After the study had already gained lots of traction in the media, some experts began to push back. Writing in Slate, Jennifer Dowd, deputy director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford, said the astronomical figure “should raise serious believability alarm bells.” She tore apart the study’s methodology, and the Daily Beast quoted Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, an adjunct professor of epidemiology at UCLA, calling the $12.2 billion economic cost of infections from the rally “absurd.”
Where the media failed is not in reporting the study’s findings. It was conducted by a credible source on an important topic. The problem is the uncritical way it was presented, often with a headline that framed the study’s findings as far more conclusive than they are and not giving equal space to countering experts.
When the national media spread more fear than balanced information, it undermines rational decision making, which can ripple across society, especially when it influences policymakers.
For example, every day, millions of us drive cars. We do this despite the well-documented fact that nearly 30,000 people die every year from traffic accidents, not including all those who are maimed. We understand the danger accidents pose and take reasonable precautions to minimize that risk so as to enjoy the benefits of driving.
In order to assess the risk of any activity and take reasonable precautions, people need a source of information they can trust. If the dangers driving poses were blown way out of proportion and gave people the impression the next trip to the grocery store would be the last thing they’d ever do, we’d have a hard time making wise decisions.
Rather than managing the risk by obeying speed limits and wearing seat belts, some people might be inclined to forgo driving altogether, sacrificing jobs and education if it required traveling distances they couldn’t walk or bike. Policymakers would ban cars or pass restrictions so onerous that we couldn’t get to our destinations. Other people might react with extreme skepticism, believing the risks of driving to be just a hoax and proceeding to drive with reckless abandon.
The national media aren’t likely to change course in this regard anytime soon. The good news is we really don’t need them to. People are responsible for their own choices in life. So, regardless of how distorted the news becomes, people can still read it with a healthy dose of skepticism and critical thinking, especially when it comes to reporting on scientific studies. That doesn’t mean dismissing every expert opinion as part of a conspiracy, but it does mean that the more frightening a headline, the more scrutiny the story should get.