If It Bleeds It Leads

We are all sharing a collective trauma right now.

I’ve heard this conveyed time and time again, as COVID-19 continues to impact our daily lives. In fact, just last week, an officer at my wife’s work succumbed to the illness.

So, the gravity of the situation is grim; I don’t want to deny that with this post whatsoever.

The purpose of this post is highlight a growing polarization I’m seeing in the media, and it doesn’t matter what political leaning a particular publication has. The conservative-leaning Fox News does it just as much as the progressive-leaning CNBC.

Fear by Omission

Today’s highlight comes from CNN–an article title prone to shock value and fear generation.

US tops 5 million Covid-19 cases, with five states making up more than 40% of tally.”

CNN (August 9, 2002)

First thing to note is that US has now topped 5 million COVID-19 cases. That’s the point of the article: yet another terrifying milestone achieved.

But that’s not part that has me on edge.

It’s the second part. The part that notes five states make up about 40% of the total cases.

The article makes an important distinction, that raised my eyebrows:

“To put the number in perspective, that means the United States has had more Covid-19 cases than Ireland has people. The number of cases is also slightly higher than the entire population of Alabama.”

The article goes on to list precisely which states: California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Georgia.

Looking at the list, something immediately jumps out: those are some highly populated states.

This is NOT uncommon. I feel like I’ve seen it again and again in politically-charged generalizations from both sides, in news articles (both titles and content) regardless of source, in opinion articles (which the media is more and more presenting as fact), and in social media memes.

Ignoring the Obvious

So, let’s run some calculations to see why this terror-inducing statement…well…shouldn’t be scary. But first…

Don’t get me wrong. the US hitting 5 million reported cases of COVID-19 IS scary, and I don’t want to discount that statement.

Wikipedia provides a list of states in descending order, ranked by population. It also includes the percent that state has of the TOTAL United States population.

Let’s do the math.

  • California has 11.96% of the US population (rank #1)
  • Texas has 8.68% of the US population (rank #2)
  • Florida has 5.91% of the US population (rank #4)
  • New York has 6.44% of the US population (rank #3)
  • Georgia has 3.18% of the US population (rank #8)

These five states make up 36.17% of the total US population, so just over 40% isn’t nearly as scary when put into that perspective.

If anything, the headline should be “five states are managing the virus a little worse than the others.”

Why This Matters

Most people don’t think in numbers. Most people don’t think critically.

I do.

My first impression likely matched that of most people: fear. Continued fear that the virus is out of control in the states, and that the state where I live is part of that unfortunate few that make up 40% of all cases.

But, given the relational perspective of population by state, 40% of all reported US-based cases stem from a subsection of 35% of the overall population of the US… well, that just makes sense!

We can make wild claims when we don’t step back and question the statistics being touted.

All media does this: left, right, moderate. We just have to be grounded and aware enough to see through the B.S.

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