Shark Month: Covid-19 Edition

How to cover uncertainty and statistics in a pandemic, without making things worse.

One of modern life’s greatest challenges is to put alarming news in perspective. We get bombarded with the most disturbing stories and images from every continent, all the time, in every medium. It’s like looking out a ship porthole and seeing only sharks. There’s an entire ocean out there, but we only glimpse the most menacing fraction of the whole.

Every day right now, new numbers drop from the sky, like dumb bombs. How many people have been infected with the new coronavirus? How many have died? Except that we don’t actually know the answers. The number of people who have tested positive for covid-19 is not a meaningful insight in countries like the United States, which are still not testing at scale. Meanwhile, deaths are undercounted in some cases, overcounted in others. And yet, authorities keep reporting these numbers, and reporters keep conveying them, because, well, what else do we have to go by?

We know from past research that there are ways to report numbers that humans can understand, even in times of uncertainty. Use relevant analogies whenever possible. Always admit what you don’t know. And use human language to convey statistics. Don’t tell people that covid-19 has a 5% fatality rate in New York if you want humans to understand you. Try instead: “For every 100 people tested and confirmed to have covid-19 in New York, five have died.”

We need reporters and officials to help us make sense of covid-19 statistics. (This STAT piece on projected covid-19 deaths is a great example of what this looks like.) If you tell me that there are 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars visible from the Earth through telescopes, I cannot understand it. It’s gobbledigook. But if you tell me that there are 10 times more stars in the night sky than grains of sand in the world’s deserts and beaches? Well, then I get it.

Otherwise, reporting raw numbers without any context feeds into several human biases, all at once. First, it creates an illusion of certainty, which is the very natural desire to believe there is something solid to hold onto when there is not. Secondly, it amps up fear, without any corresponding sense of control. Which leads to avoidance, denial and defiance, which increases the risk of even more infection and death.

In 1995, the UK government announced that the newest version of the birth control increased the risk of blood clots by 100%. This news went out to doctors and the media in this language, which is also gobbledigook. (As opposed to saying something like, “Of every 7,000 women who took the old pill, about 1 got a blood clot. With the new pill, about 2 are getting blood clots.”) As a result, many women stopped taking the pill. This led to an estimated 13,000 additional abortions in England and Wales the following year. And another 13,000 unplanned births. Note that both getting an abortion and giving birth have much higher risks of blood clots than the pill.

There was a real risk, but the failure to communicate it was, in this case, much more dangerous.

“Journalists like a big number that catches everyone’s eye,” says physician Steven Woloshin at the Center for Medicine and Media at The Dartmouth Institute. “It is important to give people a sense of the magnitude, but it would be ideal if they helped people put the numbers in context.”

Photo by Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash

What would today’s news look like if it were calibrated to reality? Imagine a giant wall of TV screens, as big as the biggest movie theater screen. Right smack in the middle, there would certainly be a big story about the 161,000 confirmed global deaths from covid-19. That’s a big deal.

But right next to it would be a story about the 604,000 people confirmed to have recovered from covid-19 worldwide. Given that this number is nearly four times the fatality number, the headline should be prominent.

Both stories would also note, in the first sentence, that the actual numbers are larger than these reported numbers. The number of deaths is larger, and the actual number of recoveries is exponentially bigger than that, since many places are not tracking recoveries carefully, consistently or at all.

“Tolerate the uncertainty,” advises psychologist and risk literacy expert Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. “Say what you know, and then say what you don’t know. Both are equally important.”

What about all the people who have not gotten infected because of the unprecedented sacrifice made by billions of people to physically distance themselves from one another? Hundreds of thousands of people have been saved. These numbers should be estimated and reported out, if we want people to continue cooperating with extraordinary measures.

If you are going to report the number of deaths, you should report the number of lives saved. Why? Because one shows the threat, and the other shows our control over the threat. Millions of human beings are working on managing this threat, including nurses, scientists, doctors and sick people and their families. Where is their scoreboard?

This is not about making people feel good or minimizing the seriousness of this threat. It’s about telling the truth. Dropping numbers on people without any context undermines our sense of control, by making the threat feel more overwhelming than it actually is. All of which makes the health danger greater, ironically.

We know from decades of research that if humans are made to feel frightened and given something to do about it, we will take protective action. But if we feel frightened and helpless, we do one of three risky things.

Avoidance is the most popular response: we tune out from the news altogether, covering our hands over our ears. We simply look the other way. And it works, until we get eaten by an actual shark.

The second option is denial, dismissing the threat entirely. I know I’ve felt the impulse to do this in recent weeks. It is very tempting, and it feels great, for a while.

Third, we might resort to defiance, doing the opposite of what we are told, as a way to overcome the fear through reasserting control. An example of this might be the megachurch pastor in Florida who insisted on holding church services.

Like avoidance and denial, defiance feels so refreshing, and it can kill you. Most of us alternate through all three and back again, as we have seen President Trump do repeatedly, sometimes in the same news conference.

Photo by Bram. on Unsplash

Here’s the good news: there are times when regular people are largely helpless to take action against frightening threats; in times of war or terrorism, for example. But in this pandemic, regular people are the most effective solution right now. Each one of us has significant control over how this disaster proceeds, more control, in many cases, than we have in facing other major risks, like cancer. Strengthening your immune system, protecting your family and neighbors by physically distancing whenever possible, washing your damn hands. Those are proven defenses and, for many of us, eminently doable. But they don’t feel reassuring because all we see is sharks, all the time.

We struggled with this distortion before the novel coronavirus came along. That’s why two-thirds of Americans said they felt worn out by the news — six months ago. It’s exhausting to watch sharks coming at you, over and over. That’s why, a year ago, four in ten Americans said they “often or sometimes avoid the news.” And that’s why Americans have spent years being frightened of rising crime rates, while crime was actually falling. Our porthole showed only murder and mayhem.

People are hungry for news in every disaster. But they want and need a fuller picture. That’s why “Some Good News,” John Krasinski’s brand new, pop-up YouTube news channel, has 37 million views and 3 million subscribers. How did that happen? He’s famous, but he’s not that famous. Funny but not that funny. So why is it so popular?

Unlike certain Fox News pundits, Krasinski is not getting attention the cheap and dirty way — by denying, defying or avoiding the real threat posed by this virus. He’s right-sizing it. He’s putting it alongside other equally true stories and using humor and compassion to balance out the dread. It’s almost like a vaccine, psychologically speaking. Journalists can do this, too, not with saccharine stories and celebrity cameos, but with a fuller picture of reality. There’s a whole ocean out there, and most of it remains unexplored.

Amanda Ripley is a journalist and the author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why.

Journalist & NY Times bestselling author. Most recent book: HIGH CONFLICT: Why We Get Trapped & How We Get Out (Prev: SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD & UNTHINKABLE)