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#Coronavirus news lesson: How to read past the headline

Don’t let opportunistic fearmongers scare you to death

The University of Minnesota this week engaged in a significant bit of journalistic malpractice, publishing on its website the claim that a new study shows the coronavirus has a 1.4% fatality rate. That’s a very high number—about ten and a half times as deadly as the seasonal influenza—and indeed statistics like that have been used to justify the sweeping, economically ruinous nationwide lockdowns that have gripped the country for several weeks now.

The problem? The study showed no such thing. Researchers at Imperial College London had actually determined that the real fatality rate of the disease is just 0.66%. That’s more than half of the rate touted by UMN in its scare headline; it’s also around a third less than Imperial College’s earlier fatality estimate of about 1%.

A huge revision like that is big news, and it is good news. Media outlets should be pushing it like crazy. That a university would instead choose to engage in transparent fearmongering is disgraceful. People need accurate news, particularly where it concerns something as consequential and relevant as the death rate of an infectious disease.

Whatever else this travesty is, it serves as a useful journalism lesson for anyone who regularly consumes the news: Read past the headline. Read the whole article. Read the sources the article cites. Follow up. You don’t need to be a journalist to do this sort of thing; you just need to have a healthy skepticism of most media (including on-campus media). That doesn’t mean mistrusting every report you read; it means you have to actually do the reading, and figure out if what you’re being told is accurate or an opportunistic falsehood.

MORE: UMN research center misrepresents COVID-19 study to double death rate

IMAGE: Alexsey Valentinovich / Shutterstock.com

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