Famous Statistician Blasts Media for 'Basic Error' in Coronavirus Reporting That Distorts the Truth


FiveThirtyEight editor and American statistician Nate Silver criticized the mainstream media on Thursday for not providing context to its stories to pursue an agenda of prioritizing stories that “sound smart” instead of the truth.

In particular, Silver was calling out reports of an increase in coronavirus cases that do not discuss the sharp increase in testing.

“Not providing context on the increase in testing is such a basic error, and has been so widespread, that it’s revealing about the media’s goals,” he tweeted.

“It’s more interested in telling plausibly-true stories (‘narratives’) that sound smart to its audience than in accuracy/truth per se.”

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Silver was responding to author James Surowiecki, who pointed to stories from The New York Times and Axios that failed to highlight the increase in testing that could have resulted in the growth of coronavirus cases.

The statistician added that this doesn’t mean these news outlets are “making stuff up or engaging in fake news.” Instead, there are “sins of omission.”

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“BTW, Trump has figured this out! By focusing on case counts, the media creates disincentives to do more testing because it makes the numbers look superficially worse,” he tweeted.

“One reason (not the only one) why we’re not pushing for testing as much as we should.”

Silver’s criticism prompted at least Axios to update its story, according to Mediaite.

An editor’s note at the bottom of the story reads, “This story has been updated to clarify that increased testing could be part of the reason the number of cases in the U.S. is rising.”

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The New York Times’ story does include a quote from Vice President Mike Pence who mentioned that more tests are becoming available so there will more than likely be an uptick in the number of coronavirus cases.

“It’s important that as we see progress being made, and declining hospitalizations and emergency room admissions and positive rates going down, that all of these governors are also aware as they’re increasing testing, the number of cases that are going to be reported are going up,” Pence said while giving advice to state governors.

“But it’s all going to be a matter of making sure that the public sees the whole picture. But it’s all progress.”

In another tweet, Silver added that the lack of straightforward communication probably made matters worse when it comes to the coronavirus response.

“There’s been too much ‘we don’t want to scare people’ and its alter ego cousin ‘we don’t want to give people a false sense of complacency’ going around since the start of the pandemic and it’s probably made matters worse than just communicating as straightforwardly as possible,” he said.

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Erin Coates was an editor for The Western Journal for over two years before becoming a news writer. A University of Oregon graduate, Erin has conducted research in data journalism and contributed to various publications as a writer and editor.
Erin Coates was an editor for The Western Journal for over two years before becoming a news writer. She grew up in San Diego, California, proceeding to attend the University of Oregon and graduate with honors holding a degree in journalism. During her time in Oregon, Erin was an associate editor for Ethos Magazine and a freelance writer for Eugene Magazine. She has conducted research in data journalism, which has been published in the book “Data Journalism: Past, Present and Future.” Erin is an avid runner with a heart for encouraging young girls and has served as a coach for the organization Girls on the Run. As a writer and editor, Erin strives to promote social dialogue and tell the story of those around her.
Tucson, Arizona
Graduated with Honors
Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, University of Oregon
Books Written
Contributor for Data Journalism: Past, Present and Future
Prescott, Arizona
Languages Spoken
English, French
Topics of Expertise
Politics, Health, Entertainment, Faith