Power of the Media to Shape Coronaplague Beliefs

On a recent WhatsApp video call, a friend in Ireland expressed concern over the disastrous wave of deaths washing over the United States. He’d scanned newspaper headlines and had processed that coronaplague infections were at an all-time high in the U.S. He inferred from this that Americans must be dying in larger numbers than back in April, for example.

I checked the front page of the New York Times while we were chatting. Sure enough, plague is worse than ever here:

Unlike my righteous neighbors in Maskachusetts, he does not pretend to care about all humanity. So he hadn’t clicked down and scrolled through five screens to get to the following chart:

I.e., if this chart were on the front page, we might think that the plague was on its way out! (and we would, I hope, attribute this to our faith in the Church of Shutdown and the Sacrament of Masks!)

[For reference, a similar curve for never-shut never-masked Sweden (from the prophets at IHME):


It was interesting to learn what kind of impression our media leaves in a reader’s mind when the reader is not carefully focused on drilling down into the details.

Separately, in today’s coronasteria, the front page of the New York Times screams “Global Coronavirus Death Toll Surpasses Half a Million”. Drilling down into the story, the reader will find no comparisons to what other causes of death might afflict the world’s 7.8 billion humans (none of whom are “illegal”!). He/she/ze/they will not learn that, for example, “Up to 650 000 people die of respiratory diseases linked to seasonal flu each year” (WHO).


  • Politifact rates Donald Trump’s tweet “As of June 23, the COVID-19 death rate is ‘way down.'” “mostly true” (i.e., it is “partly false” to say that a downward trend is “down”)

41 thoughts on “Power of the Media to Shape Coronaplague Beliefs

  1. Re: cases versus deaths, I noticed the same thing. Deaths are falling.

    Some make the argument that deaths lag, which is true, but I think what we’re really seeing is that a significant portion of the <60 aged US population, particularly in highly Republican areas, has chosen not to take sufficient precautions (e.g. masks), and are therefore getting infected. If R is very high, this is going to spread exponentially.

    This isn't really that surprising. A significant percentage of the population does other hazardous things, like driving drunk, having unprotected sex and smoking.

    Unless a vaccine is delivered soon, this will likely lead to de facto herd immunity in the US, whether we like it or not.

    One just needs to decide which side of the "fence" you are on, while we wait for herd immunity. Your age and risk tolerance should factor greatly into that decision.

    • De facto herd immunity is how every single epidemic (i.e. not a local outbreak) of respiratory disease ended in the entire history of mankind.

      To even think that this one is somehow different is extraordinary, and so the claims that this is somehow different this time require extraordinary evidence to be taken as seriously.

      The numbers say this is propagandemic.

    • “The numbers say this is propagandemic”

      Well, not for old folks, though. The virus is unusual in this respect, it does not have the flu U-shaped IFR-by-age curve.

  2. It takes time for people to be offed. The death curve should start to show a beautiful increase in ~ one week.

    Remember, just because the Swedes can get away with it does not mean the US of A won’t turn in the set from a post apocalyptic movie doing the very same.

    • Averros, person to person Swedes are better people than the folks in the US of A. They can get stuff done, such as going through this epidemic, without the need to dig mass graves.

      The evidence for the curve will present itself (or not! if I am wrong) all by itself.

    • Federico,

      You do realize that you are being flaming racist according to your own definition (no praise or criticism of a third party unless appointed by the said party) ?Also you are denying agency for the people of the US of A which is part of being a true racist..

    • Ivan I am being a flaming xenophobe (assuming I can be against a country that does not send many immigrants here). Words have meaning — I believe any random sample of the Swedish population will show people behaving substantially more like fully grown adults compared to the equivalent random sample of US citizens. This is nationality based, not race based. I am perfectly comfortable being accused of being prejudiced against the folks of the US of A (an important % of my own family, incidentally). If that makes you happier I am extremely and irrationally prejudiced against the Swedes (our insufferable neighbours).

    • Also, I do not deny agency to the people of the US of A. I am just stating that whatever the people of the US of A choose to do will turn out to be more childish, stupid, and ineffective compared to any decision on the same matter enacted by the Swedes.

    • Federico,

      According to your own definition of what ‘racist’ means, every utterance you can conceivably come up with is ‘racist’ when you attempt to discuss merits or demerits of any group of people, as neither the third party you speak in favor of or criticize appointed you a spokesman.


      You cannot weasel out of your own definition of what ‘racist’ means: primero, every nation consists of one or more groups of people that you label ‘races’. Thus criticizing a nation you automatically criticize black/brown/yellow/white people inhabiting the nation; segundo, in your own definition you did not say anything about races, you used the word “the third party” which means any group of people that you do not belong to.

    • Ivan, facepalm. Reread what I said. In that thread I pointed out the kind lady was singling out black families in her condescension. Since black families were singled out on the basis of colour, my conclusion is that she is a racist.

      My condescension for the citizens of the US of A is based on citizenship. The country fosters an immature attitude to life. As long as the US is a multi-ethnic country it is hard to accuse me of racism.

    • Federico: Immature attitude toward life? We are informed by our media that the willingness to shut down, deny children an education, deny adults opportunities to work and socialize, etc. is the measure of maturity and “responsibility.” By this measure, Americans have the MOST mature/responsible attitude towards life of any nation since we have shut down for longer than any other nation!

    • Federico,

      In your own definition of “racist” you did not mention anything about color (see your “third party” definition). Now, not surprisingly, you are moving goalposts in the Humpty Dumpty manner.

      Even if one accepts your ever changing definition of “racist” as now based on color, being condescending towards the US as a country means you are being condescending towards blacks (among other races) in the US, therefore you are a racist. Perhaps, a xenophobic racist, a superset, as it were ?

  3. At that same NYT link, good news! Six months into the pandemic, the WHO is sending a team of experts to China to investigate the source of the virus! Thank you Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus! We’re saved! Oh, no we’re not:

    “Tuesday will mark six months since China reported the first cases of the virus to the W.H.O. Dr. Tedros said that “the worst is yet to come.” “I am sorry to say that,” he said, “but with this kind of environment and condition, we fear the worst.”

    • I’m not sure why anyone would take that Tedros cannibal-variety marxist seriously. He is not an actual doctor of medicine, he is a political hack.

    • @averros: Even more risible is the idea that sending a team of WHO experts into China will produce anything other than exactly what the Chinese want them to report. They’ve had six months to prepare themselves. Anything that should have gone into the memory hole has long since burned to cinders or is locked deep inside an underground vault in the Forbidden City, and all the would-be rogues and whistleblowers have been identified and liquidated. If they had wanted to be candid and forthcoming with all the information they had about the virus, they could have easily done so in January and February.

      The propaganda circle will be complete and the Chinese will consider the matter closed. The report will be cited by Harvard TH Chan and its counterparts around the world as definitive. This is like sending an arson investigation team led by the arsonist’s brother to investigate a fire six months after the crime.

    • Ghebreyesus doesn’t want to die! He’s got a fantastic job. He jets all around the world giving speeches about peer-reviewed WHO research. To quote our host, he keeps uninteresting papers from distracting serious people at important conferences. ( https://books.google.com/books?id=Gb6vumaGwJAC&pg=PA295&lpg=PA295#v=onepage&q&f=false )

      He could very easily be reassigned to report on the public health impacts of cleaning the interior of Tank #5 in the sewage treatment plant in Lagos, Nigeria, investigating Bolsanaro’s “Immunity via Sewage” hypothesis.

      “It doesn’t [glug] work! [glug, glug]”

  4. > It was interesting to learn what kind of impression our media leaves in a reader’s mind when the reader is not carefully focused on drilling down into the details.

    The media use to deliver news and facts in 30 minutes, but now it is delivering drama 24/7. All that we hear is infection rates is going up and make it sound like an infected person will die soon.

    Infection != Death
    Media == Drama

    If only there were 1/10 as this much attention given from the media on other more crushing topics (pick one) to scare the dumbed down USA citizens to get them change a bad habit such as (my 2 basic topics) spending beyond your means, or checking on your kids and their friends, maybe, maybe then we will see the USA back on the right track. But hey, it is wrong to hurt peoples feeling.

  5. The media are just doing their part in helping to get rid of the Trumpenfuher. If the Dems win the Presidency and Senate the following day the good new will flow like milk and honey. In fact it will be deemed illegal “hate speech” to refer to the coronavirus as having an effect on anything — because minorities are disproportionately affected by it.

    • Yes, the entire world (except Sweden) all signed up in a secret conspiracy to get rid of trump. They sacrificed their economies, their elderly and their children’s well being and education all to help the “Dems”.

    • It’s just that fear porn sells. The fact that it agrees with their TDS is an icing on the cake.

  6. In my county on the Gulf Coast of Texas, the total population is 21,400 more or less. Beginning to keep track on April 15, we were at 19 cases total, 0 fatalities. We finished April with 30 cases, 3 fatalities. Finished May with 37 cases, 3 fatalities. We had a big jump in total cases in June when testing became more available. Last totals were June 25, 75 cases and . . . 3 fatalities. I’ll be watching in the coming week to see if there is a jump in fatalities.

  7. Whenever I see a “cases” headline I smile and think back to an electronics parts store I frequented when young. It had a big scary sign that said “Warning 99,000 ohms”. You could stratify people into “has a clue” or not in a split second.

    According to the UN (I know not a trusted source) we were expecting 7.6 deaths per thousand this year. ( https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/WLD/world/death-rate ) Covid-19 is currently at 0.065 deaths per thousand. So we have a ways to go to kick 1918 out of the most deathly year. If you look at that graph you would have a hard time picking out the four big flu pandemics that occurred in it’s time range.

  8. The WSJ had a fascinating and well researched article on masks today, why their acceptance is low. Behind a paywall, but I suspect most of Phil’s readers have subscriptions :-).


    I found this section on Hong Kong enlightening, esp since they are not a part of the Church of the Shutdown

    “Hong Kong, with 7.5 million residents, is one of the most densely populated places on earth, but recorded only six deaths from Covid-19 despite having no lockdown and receiving nearly 350,000,travelers a day from abroad until authorities started reducing cross-border travel on January 30. Around half of the arrivals were from mainland China, where the virus originated.

    The key secret of Hong Kong’s success, Prof. Yuen said, is that the mask compliance rate during morning rush hour is 97%. The 3% who don’t comply are mainly Americans and Europeans, he said.

    “The only thing you can do is universal masking, that’s what stopped it,” Prof. Yuen said.”

    • Yes, the majority (all?) of Hong Kong’ens wear a mask — when they are out in public walking the street, on buses, subways, etc. — but do they also wear mask anywhere else? Offices? Factories? Restaurants? Markets? Night clubs? Parties? Etc.? If they do, then yes masks is the answer (at least till when we have a vaccine (if we believe in that)).

      I really want someone to tell me if I got this wrong, someone from HK if possible or with direct knowledge.

      I think it is more of a discipline then masks. HK’ens are far more educated then Americans and know to wash often, know what to share and not and know to keep things clean. Probably the dirties public place in HK is cleaner then the cleanest public place in America.

    • I guess you’ve never been to Hong Kong. No, they don’t wear masks. These are mostly used by girls who had no time to apply makeup and by people who have cold but don’t want to appear rude. The cleanliness… nothing exceptional. You probably confuse HK with Singapore.

      They, having massive numbers of mainland Chinese coming and going, probably developed herd immunity before specific C19 tests even became available, so all the pneumonia cases were attributed to normal flu and colds.

  9. Nonsense. They wear masks in Asia because of pollution. If there is food and coffee consumed outside of the home then all masking is straight up sanitary theatre. Go people watch for three minutes to see how unsanitary mask life is. Masks and the people wearing them are gross.

  10. Sheer madness is divinest sense
    to a discerning eye,
    Much sense, the starkest madness.
    ‘Tis the the majority,
    in this, as all, prevail.
    Assent, and you are sane.
    Demur, your straightways dangerous,
    and handled with a chain.

    — a spinster from Amherst

  11. It is amazing that people are willing to dismiss the NYT reports while ignoring data evaluations by the experts in infectious diseases and epidemiology. New cases are a leading indicator of what is coming. Average onset of symptoms from exposure is 5.2 days ranging up to 10-14 days. It is another 10 days before hospitalization becomes necessary for about 20% of the population, It may be another few days before intubation and mechanical ventilation become necessary in about 2.5% of the infected population. Around 1.8% of the CoV19 patients progress from respiratory failure and develop failure of multiple organ systems and succumb to the infection 1-3 weeks after intubation.
    Rather than trying to reason your way with an incomplete set of data and facts to an answer you would like, you would be best following expert advice. Wear mask, socially distance, minimize your exposure to crowds and encourage others to exercise exemplary citizenship and do the same.
    BTW in some recent strains of the SARS2 CoV-19 virus spike S1 and S2 proteins have stable and more effective at transmitting the infection to cells.
    Annual mortality in the US from the annual influenza seasons averages about 0.2%. US CoV-19 mortality rates are 10 times higher about 2%. With the recent trends to younger patients hopefully the mortality rate will start to fall.
    Publishing half truths confuses the issues and distracts from our best responses. Sweden’s mortality rates are much higher than their neighbors. New Zealand clamped down hard initially and is now CoV-19 disease free.
    Free speech has limits. It is illegal to scream fire in a movie theater. In this analogy, there is a fire in the theater and you and people like you are telling people it is okay to stay in your seats, just ignore the smoke and fire alarms, no one had died.
    Herd immunity

    • Dr. Brett: Thanks for the addition! It sounds like you’re saying we should expect to see an upturn in deaths 4-5 weeks after an upturn in infections. I certainly hope that you’re wrong, but dinner is on me if you’re right (assuming that we’re both still alive and the license raj allows restaurants to operate). Can we agree on August 6 as a reasonable date to check?

    • Brett,

      Could you provide a reference for the 2% IFR with a break down by age ?

      Swedish and Iceland sources give the average number of 0.6% and 0.58% respectively. For the age group between 0-49, they found that the IFR is at most 0.02%. The average age of the new cases in TX is 38. Hopefully, that means that the risk of dying for them is 10 times lower than from flu.

      Please provide some tangible evidence instead of scary stories: we already know that sooner or later we are going to die.

    • Ken: Thanks for that chart. Despite my rich fund of ignorance compared to Dr. Brett, the CDC data make me feel better about what is likely to happen on August 6 (I’ve already written and scheduled the blog post!). Here’s the text so that people can’t accuse me of cheating:

      My implicit prediction was that the downward/flat trend in deaths in the U.S. was likely to continue, despite the rising trend, starting in mid-June, of positive infection tests. This prediction was based on decades of experience… as a computer programmer. Dr. Brett Arron’s was based on actually knowing something.

      It has now been roughly 8 weeks since the “new reported cases in the U.S.” started trending up. What are we seeing in the trend of “new reported deaths”?

    • “My implicit prediction was that the downward/flat trend in deaths in the U.S. was likely to continue, despite the rising trend, starting in mid-June, of positive infection tests.”

      Philip, what on earth are you basing this on? Momentum?

      Are you thinking that the increasing number of positive tests is due to increased testing? In that case the positivity rate should be stable or falling, when in fact it’s rising in many states. https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/testing/tracker/overview

    • Russil,

      As we know by now, people who get sick from the virus is not some uniform blob with IFR of 0.6% (according to non-hysterical sources). The current batch of infections has the median age of 36-38 years (e.g. in FL and TX) whose mortality rate is about 0.02% at most.


      So, the hope is that despite the spike in infections mostly amongst the younger segment, mortality will remain more or less stable or even decreases. Whether this hope materializes remains to be seen.

  12. > My implicit prediction was that the downward/flat trend in deaths in the U.S. was likely to continue, despite the rising trend, starting in mid-June, of positive infection tests.

    There could be simple explanation: we are testing so many people now that numbers are dominated by false positives. Well-known phenomenon when testing for rare occurrences in large number of subjects.

  13. From the beginning, this epidemic was characterized by profound shortages of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and sick people.

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