The fairness trap

Political journalists are in danger of making the same mistake with coronavirus science as they made with climate science.

A viral tweet comparing NBC’s coverage of two stories: a civil rights protest in Brooklyn this weekend, and President Trump’s planned rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday. It implies NBC was being biased by calling Trump’s event “dangerous,” and not the protests.


I sympathize with political journalists right now.

As coronavirus continues to spread, and civil rights protests continue across the country, the divide between liberals and conservatives is growing wider by the day. This is making traditional journalists’ job of seeming “tough but fair” increasingly difficult—especially as one side increasingly relies on rhetoric that is racist, factless, and often both.

So I understand journalists’ desire to find an area where liberals are just as wrong as conservatives, particularly in These Fraught Times.

This, unfortunately, is not one of those areas.

The conservative press is running with this tweet hard. To them, the protests and Trump’s rally are indistinguishable in terms of COVID-19 risk.

Now, some mainstream and liberal journalists have started to agree—notably, the The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald and CNN’s Brian Stelter.

Stelter in particular called the point “fair” and “important”—and when a reader noted that there was a difference between indoor rally and an outdoor protest, Stelter dismissed the concern.

As a climate journalist, this concerns me. For too long, I watched mainstream political journalists apply a “both sides” logic to settled climate science in order to seem “fair” to climate-denying conservatives.

For years, political journalists gave climate deniers airtime and credibility even as they repeatedly demonstrated their denial was motivated by the fossil fuel industry’s profit-seeking agenda.

Now, I fear that political journalists may follow that same pattern for coronavirus science—giving conservative science deniers credibility even as they demonstrate their denial is motivated in part by the interest of profit-seeking industries.

And make no mistake: the danger of an indoor, mostly-maskless rally is not the same as an outdoor, mostly-masked protest. To say these carry these events carry the same risk is science denial, period.

Journalists have a duty to accurately report science. Here’s what the peer-reviewed literature says about indoor versus outdoor spread.

The virus is likely spread by breathing and talking

The scientific community is still divided over whether COVID-19 is “airborne.” This is a technical term that basically means the virus can spread through small aerosols that linger after speaking and breathing, in addition to larger droplets that drop to the ground after coughing and sneezing.

The reason for this division, however, is not because scientists are confident the virus isn’t airborne. It’s because they can’t yet prove without a shadow of a doubt that it is—and proving that could take years.

So most scientists working on COVID-19 are operating under the assumption that the virus is airborne, because other iterations of COVID were, and that’s generally where the evidence is pointing. A comprehensive overview published last month in the journal Risk Analysis said “The weight of the available evidence warrants immediate attention to address the significance of aerosols and implications for public health protection.”

“In the mind of scientists working on this, there’s absolutely no doubt that the virus spreads in the air,” Queensland University of Technology aerosol scientist Lidia Morawska recently said in the journal Nature. “This is a no-brainer.”

Particles from breathing/speaking linger indoors

There is mounting evidence that airborne transmission is more likely to occur indoors than outdoors—especially when the activity happening indoors involves a lot of yelling, aka expelling of more aerosols.

A peer-reviewed study from the journal Nature Research, for example, showed coronavirus aerosols linger longer in crowded, unventilated spaces. It recommended ventilation as part of a risk mitigation strategy. Here is a screenshot from that study’s abstract, emphasis mine:

Another article in the journal Environment International indicated that small virus droplets exhaled by an infected person travel a longer distance indoors. An infected person exhaling particles may be “a significant route of infection in indoor environments,” the article said. Here’s a fun little graphic from it:

The risk of infection also increases when you’re standing next to an infected person for a long time—something you’re more likely to do in a crowded indoor rally than at an outdoor protest. In an article for the journal Nature, University of Leicester virologist Julian Tang said: “If you’re standing beside [someone who’s infected], sharing the same airspace with them for 45 minutes, you’re going to inhale enough virus to cause infection.”

But even if you’re not standing beside an infected person, you’re still at risk from them if you’re indoors, reads a recent letter in the New England Journal of Medicine. “Aerosols from infected persons may therefore pose an inhalation threat even at considerable distances and in enclosed spaces, particularly if there is poor ventilation.”

Masks are “the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission”

Over time, peer-reviewed research has increasingly indicated that masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19 through airborne aerosols.

And now, a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says widespread masks-wearing is “the determinant in shaping the trends of the pandemic.”

“We conclude that wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission,” the study reads. Along with social distancing, handwashing, and other measures, mask-wearing “represents the most likely fighting opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Protesters are not ignoring this science. Trump and his supporters are.

None of this is to say there is no risk of spreading coronavirus by protesting outdoors. There absolutely is—particularly in large, stagnant protests where lots of people are yelling and many people are not wearing masks.

But most people at Black Lives Matter protests—except the police—are wearing masks. By doing this and being outdoors, they are taking risk-mitigation steps recommended by scientists to lessen the spread and more safely participate in their activity of choice.

People at Trump-supportive gatherings do not appear to be wearing masks, and they are gathering indoors. They are not, in other words, listening to scientists.

Not all of this is Trump’s fault

Even though most scientists believe COVID-19 spreads through the air, “no countries or authorities consider airborne spread of COVID-19 in their regulations to prevent infections transmission indoors”—including the World Health Organization. This is because there is not yet an unequivocal body of evidence proving airborne transmission.

If it sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve followed climate science. Scientists have been confident for decades that excess greenhouse gas emissions would cause catastrophic warming of the planet. But due to “an abundance of caution” in the scientific profession; the influence of outside political forces; and a “we have to look at both sides” mentality in journalism, we never acted on that confidence. Now we’re very close to being fucked.

We don’t have to make this mistake again. But in order to avoid it, political journalists have to figure out how to understand science, and use it as a tool to hold political actors accountable for their lies.

OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!

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