Accuracy in Media

Esquire reports that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is responsible for all sorts of terrors in his state’s response to Covid.

Esquire hugely misinforms when it does so. Because, obviously, it would be terrible if it were not possible to criticize a Republican who might run for the presidency.

The lie here is to look at a recent report from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The report itself is fine. It looks at one specific point, answers that one specific point, and, like most economic research, does what it says on the tin. Esquire tricks us with its retelling of it.

“Who lives through a pandemic and makes war on the cures?” the piece asks.

“In September, the National Bureau of Economic Research attempted to answer all of these questions. And the answers remain, well, baffling even as Florida Gov. Ronald DeSantis (to name only one example) runs for president on the basis of his “highly successful” COVID policies, which held the butcher’s bill in that state to a mere 82,875.”

Esquire is claiming that DeSantis’ policies led to more deaths than in other places, or than if different policies had been followed, with the obvious subtext that Republicans were worse.

Except that’s not what the NBER research looked at at all. It’s here, and just like the Bible, it’s open to all to read.

The truth is that the report does not look at state policies at all. It’s precisely nothing at all to do with governors. What they find is that within Ohio and Florida, there are more deaths from Covid among Republican voters than those who vote Democrat. That is interesting, it is something we’d like to find out more about. But it’s absolutely nothing to do with state-level policies. Because state-level policies apply to those in the state just as much for those who vote R as they do to those who vote D. The NBER paper has found an interesting difference between R and D voters, not something about policies followed by R governors.

This needs to be repeated – the difference is between R and D voters in states with the same statewide policies. Therefore the difference is not about the policies followed by the state governor.

There is then the second lie – misdirection. A quote from the Washington Post:

“Nearly 1.2 million residents of the Sunshine State contracted the coronavirus over those three months, nearly a third of the total the state has seen since the pandemic began in February 2020. More than 13,000 Floridians died as the virus whipped across the state, more than 17 percent of the deaths the country saw during that period despite Florida having only 6.5 percent of the country’s population.”

That’s one specific three-month period. What we actually want to know is what’s the performance over the whole pandemic? In a ranking where higher is better (meaning fewer deaths, after adjusting for age of population) Florida comes No. 31 out of 51. Clearly not perfect but better than average.

Esquire ranks at 117 in the listings of news and media outlets in the US. It gains some 30.7 million visits from that position. There is also the print magazine and numerous international editions to consider – the distribution is very much wider than just the web presence.

When a decent enough piece of scientific research is misused in this way we have to at least call it misdirection, if not disinformation. For why would a media outlet misuse scientific research so?

Ah, yes, of course. DeSantis might be the R candidate for the presidency soon enough. For the modern media, that’s enough to misinform about science.




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