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Why this Nonstop Fear Mongering?


Today, March 31, 2022, a headline in the New York Times reads: “Caution Urged as States Slow the Virus Fight” with a subhead “Experts Voice Concern as Variant Spreads.”

The article occupies a 7-paragraph column on the front page and continues to fill an entire half page inside.

A person confronted with such a headline naturally asks herself: What newsworthy event has triggered this story not just on the front page of a major national newspaper, but at the very top? Has a panel of SARS-CoV-2 experts issued a statement? Who are the “experts” and in what forum are they “voicing concern?” Was there a press conference or announcement made by someone in charge of Covid policy? 

The answers the reader gathers from the first seven paragraphs of the article are that, in fact, no event triggered the story, and there was no statement or forum or press conference or announcement. The rest of the article confirms this total lack of actual news.

Okay, the reader thinks. Who, then, are these experts who are voicing concern? Maybe the reporters scored exclusive interviews with prominent epidemiologists or public health leaders who issued serious warnings that are important to publicize. Perusing the article once again, she gets to the seventh paragraph before any “experts” are mentioned at all. 

The first is identified as “Dr. Ben Weston, chief health policy advisor for Milwaukee County, Wis.,” and he is quoted as saying that when a boat has just gotten off a large tidal wave it “would be a strange time to throw out the life jackets.” So… nothing newsworthy, medically or scientifically relevant, or in any way helpful there.

A quick Google search yields the following information about Dr. Weston’s credentials: He is an Associate Professor in Emergency Medicine and the Chief Health Policy Advisor for Milwaukee County. He oversees medical services for 15 fire departments and practices emergency medicine in a Level 1 Trauma Center. His training is in emergency medicine and emergency medical services. His research interests include “prehospital care, resuscitation, health equity and public health surveillance.”

Thus far, it sounds like Dr. Weston has lots of experience and expertise in emergency medicine. Nowhere does the reader find any mention of training, expertise or research in epidemiology generally or SARS-CoV-2 in particular. 

So why is Dr. Weston the first “expert” quoted in an article about how concerned we should be about the state of our “fight” against a spreading “variant?”

Dr. Weston’s bio page on the Medical College of Wisconsin website provides a clue: “Dr. Weston served as the Medical Director for the Milwaukee County/City/Municipality COVID-19 Emergency Operations Center. He has been featured on MSNBC, CNN, BBC, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, and in Politico and the New York Times.”

An emergency medical doctor who was appointed to head a municipal Covid emergency center has become a top “expert” on SARS-Cov-2 because he has apparently been featured in lots of media stories about it. As far as this reader could find, Dr. Weston has conducted no research before or during the pandemic relevant to the subject.

This is, to be sure, in no way an indictment of Dr. Weston, who is doing important and difficult work as an emergency doctor every day. It is a comment on the quality of “experts” quoted in a front-page New York Times article. 

Next the reader wonders: If there’s no news event and no newsworthy interview with a national or international expert, maybe there’s some reason that’s just emerged for “caution” to be “urged” and for “concern” to be expressed. Maybe a new study has come out, new data, or a new analysis of data showing that for states to “slow the virus fight” is a bad idea.

Rereading the entire article, yet again, the reader finds no reference to any scientific studies or analysis at all. The actual Covid-related facts reported in the article are as follows: Cases have been “falling swiftly in recent weeks,” a new variant “is now the dominant version of new virus cases in the United States,” and new infections are “edging upward once again in several states including New York.”

The only actual numbers are presented in the context of a lament about how poorly the United States is doing in its Covid response: “Americans are still lagging behind many other countries in vaccination. Only about 65 percent of Americans have received initial shots, and less than one-third of Americans have had a first booster shot,” and “fewer than 225,000 shots” are being “administered across the country each day.” 

Then, inevitably, comes the dreaded death statistic against which we must hopelessly capitulate and withdraw all argument or criticism: “The virus is still causing the deaths of more than 700 Americans each day.” Clearly, the article implies, hundreds of deaths must be a reason for concern. We can’t relax when people are still dying!

To summarize: A top headline on the front page of arguably the most influential newspaper in the United States makes it sound like states are doing something wrong by scaling back their Covid response efforts and that experts think we should worry about a variant that’s spreading. The actual content of the article reveals that there is no new evidence or reason to believe states are doing anything wrong, no new evidence that we need to be concerned about the variant, and the experts are mostly local public health officials and doctors with little expertise or research in fields related to SARS-CoV-2.*

The only purpose this reader can infer for such a front-page headline and article is to continue fueling public anxiety. To what end? Maybe the reporters and editors at the Times believe they’re advancing the cause of public health by stoking panic, even long after it is justified by the level of the threat (if it ever was justified in the first place). Or maybe, to be a bit more cynical (or realistic?) about it, the reporters and editors know that fear and panic draw readers, especially around Covid, so they just can’t let go.

In either case, this reader condemns the fear mongering that has been rampant in the New York Times and many other major news outlets since the beginning of the pandemic, and that has caused her to lose faith in the neutrality and integrity of what was once her favorite newspaper.

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • Debbie Lerman

    Debbie Lerman, 2023 Brownstone Fellow, has a degree in English from Harvard. She is a retired science writer and a practicing artist in Philadelphia, PA.

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