The COVID-19 surge caused by the Omicron variant means that once-reliable indicators of the progress of the pandemic are scant, complicating how the media is able to tell the story
But the Omicron wave is messing up the general statistics, forcing news organizations to rethink the way they report such data.
“It’s just a data disaster,” said Catherine Wu, a staff writer covering COVID-19 for Atlantic magazine.
The number of cases increased during the holidays, an expected development given the emergence of a more permeable variant than its predecessors.
If you can sum up all those numbers – and you can’t – the number of cases will be quite high.
For this reason, The Associated Press recently asked its editors and journalists to avoid emphasizing the number of cases in stories about the disease. This means, for example, that no further story focuses solely on a particular country or state, setting a one-day record for the number of cases, because that claim has become unreliable.
Across the media, there has been a greater caution in the use of official case counts.
An NBC News story on Monday about the skyrocketing number of COVID cases relied on a week’s average of cases. One Tuesday story simply referred to the “tidal wave” of cases.
On its website’s “Guide to the Pandemic,” the Washington Post used a seven-day average of cases and compared that number to last Tuesday, which saw a 56% increase. The New York Times used the daily count in an online chart, yet also included a two-week trend in both cases and deaths.
An story Saturday by Jennifer Cinco Kelleher and Terry Tang titled “Omicron explosion fuels nationwide breakdown of services” was filled with data from across the United States on hospitalization rates or employees getting sick from work. The case count metric was not used.
“We definitely wanted people to go a little deeper and be more specific in reporting,” said Josh Hoffner, the news editor who helped oversee the ‘s virus coverage.
Several news organizations are debating how best to use the data now during the Omicron boom, Wu said. But there are no easy answers.
“That’s how journalism works,” Wu said. “We need data. We have to show readers receipts. But I try to do it carefully.”
Despite the flaws, the number of cases should not be overlooked, said Gary Schweitzer, a Minnesota School of Public Health instructor and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, which monitors health coverage in the media.
He said the numbers reflect trends, giving a rough idea of which areas of the country are particularly hard hit or where growth is peaking. They can predict wider social impacts, such as where hospitals are about to close or where there will be a labor shortage.
“These are stories that cannot be adequately told if the emphasis is only on hospitalizations and deaths,” Schweitzer said.
This has also been emphasized in ‘s internal guidance.
“They have value,” Hofner said. “We don’t want people to end up mentioning the number of cases.”
There are some in public health and journalism who believe that the current boom – painful as it is – may signal good news. This could be a sign that COVID-19 is poised to become an endemic disease that people learn to live with rather than being a disruptive pandemic, wrote David Leonhardt and Ashley Wu in The New York Times.
But if the past two years have taught anything, it’s about danger in predictions, Lewis said.
“We’ve been surprised over and over again,” she said. “We do not know everything about the course of the pandemic. We still need to be humble and keep an open mind in terms of where things are going. ,