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I always thought that one of the basic jobs of a reporter is supposed to be asking questions. Don’t just report a bunch of random facts or assertions; look at them and see if they suggest something meaningful, or maybe something that remains unexplained. Just today I’ve seen three different news stories that leave me with questions that I would have thought were obvious. But nobody asked them.
First: today Fox News breathlessly announces that the U.S. has passed 35,000 cases, making it the “third-highest infected nation in the world,” after China and Italy. But comparing the absolute number of infections across three nations with vastly different total populations is utterly meaningless. Since the U.S. is, in fact, the third most populous nation on the planet, having the third-highest number of infections is exactly what you would expect, neither particularly good or bad. The unasked question, of course, is why Italy, which is twenty-third in total population, should be in the top three. That seems to me to be very important, and far more significant than the “dog bites man” story that the third-largest nation has the third-highest number of infections.
Second: all day I’ve been seeing news reports about how the Trump administration is talking about lifting the restrictions and allowing the economy to restart, depending on how things look after the crucial fifteen days are up. OK, fine; but all of the business closures and stay-in-place orders are state-level things, and the federal government has no authority to alter them. So what exactly is the administration considering doing? I’m sure there’s an answer, but nobody asked. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that the federal government can do anything.
Third, and most puzzling to me, is something I just saw on the local TV news. First, they ran down the current stats for North Carolina: 336 total cases, with 11 hospitalizations. Then, a few minutes later, a story about how hospitals are asking for donations of protective equipment; we heard from a local nurse who said that in the clinic she works in, they have only one N95 mask that they all have to share. Huh? We have a total of eleven hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the state, and somehow this has caused a shortage of masks? How exactly does that happen? Are all of the masks going to the hotspots like New York? Do we have a problem with distribution or poor planning? No idea, and once again, nobody asked.
There’s a difference between data and knowledge. The news media do a fairly poor job of delivering the first, and it seems to me that they make no effort at all at the second.Published in