Far too often over the course of this pandemic, the media outlets the public depends on to accurately digest and disseminate relevant data have failed to provide their readers with proper context. As A. G. Hamilton ably demonstrated in an early May dispatch for National Review, journalistic institutions have often been guilty of implying that an uptick in state-level COVID-19 caseloads was attributable to reckless governance—particularly when that governance is Republican—while discounting likelier though less politically salient explanations for the rise in infections. But what happens when the institutions responsible for the collection of that data get in on that same disreputable act? We may be about to find out.
On Wednesday, the Pew Research Center released some vital statistics about the geographic concentration of COVID-19-related deaths, nearly one-quarter of which are located in just 12 congressional districts in and around New York City. It is interesting, but by no means particularly predictive, that those districts are all represented in Congress by Democrats. You get the sense that Pew was a little concerned about the implications that might be drawn from its data by how the institution framed its findings: “COVID-19 deaths have declined in Democratic congressional districts since mid-April, but remained relatively steady in districts controlled by Republicans.”
The graphic that accompanied this statistic rendered this narrative nothing short of laughable. A seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 deaths in all congressional districts declined to 3.0 by May 20, down from the late April peak of 4.9. In Democrat-led districts, there has been a pronounced decline from 7.4 at peak to 4.1—significant progress! Meanwhile, in Republican-led districts, average deaths are down to just 1.7 from a peak of just 2.0. It isn’t factually inaccurate to note that deaths are for the most part stable in districts represented by Republicans, but it is virtually irrelevant given the modest decrease from the relatively low number of deaths at peak. The introduction of this narrative framework serves only to distract from the survey’s most significant discovery.
Likewise, an AP-NORC poll released last week was packaged by the Associated Press in such a way as to convey as little information as possible, which is a terrible shame because the survey’s findings were nothing short of blockbuster.
That poll asked respondents to gauge whether they would be comfortable reengaging with a variety of public activities, and it found significant numbers of respondents were predisposed to leave the house and recommit to basic commercial activity. While only 42 percent said they would go to a movie or a concert anytime soon, majorities said they would, in fact, be fine with the idea of going back to a gym or studio, traveling recreationally, or going to a bar or restaurant. A whopping 72 percent said they had no problem getting a haircut.
This is all a substantial movement away from the general sense of apprehension about the outside world that prevailed as recently as early May. By way of example, an ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted at the end of April found that only between 20 and 30 percent of respondents were comfortable with the idea of going to a bar or gym, staying in a hotel, or flying on an airplane. You might think that movement would inform the AP’s coverage of its own poll. You would be wrong.
The AP headlined the write up of its survey, “Many in U.S. won’t return to gym or dining out.” The word “many” is carrying a Herculean load here. The survey itself found that 50 percent would, in fact, be comfortable going to a gym and 52 percent–a majority–would go to a bar or restaurant. But rather than focus on those majorities, the poll doted on the concerns of America’s more trepidatious minority. Indeed, much of the survey’s findings related to the public’s comfort with reopening didn’t even make it into the AP’s write-up. The partisan divide over reopening, with more self-identified Republicans than Democrats favoring the lifting of pandemic-related restrictions, received far more attention than the poll’s topline results.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that these dispassionate purveyors of raw data are doing their best to prevent policymakers from reaching conclusions based on the data that these institutions themselves find distasteful. It’s especially revealing that the clever narratives these organizations wove to advance that cause all err in the same direction.