A Call for More Proportionality in Pandemic Coverage

We need to do better in conveying what's news.

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

It is a common definition that news occurs when an airplane crashes, not when one lands safely. This is actually a fairly extreme example, given the progress we have made in air safety. In 2019, the last “normal” year for this purpose (and for many others), there were about 38 million commercial passenger flights worldwide, and eight crashes, or roughly one crash for every seven and a half million flights. Something that occurs that rarely is, indeed, news.

Today though, I want to talk not about commercial aviation, but about COVID, vaccines and the news business.

As of August 23, CDC reports that 171 million Americans had been fully vaccinated, and that perhaps as many1 as 2063 of these had died of breakthrough cases of COVID. The number of deaths—more than two thousand people-- sounds scary until you do the math. Then you find that the death rate among the fully vaccinated is less than one in every 82,000 people.

At that rate, your risk of dying from COVID after being fully vaccinated is just a bit greater than the risk of dying from a dog attack (1 in 87,000).

How does this relate to news judgment? I think the answer should be clear. All deaths are devastating to families and friends. Individual deaths from dog attacks are important local news stories. They are not generally national news.

Another analogy may shed even more light. At the outset of the pandemic, the watchword was “this is not the flu.” It wasn’t, and the failure of Trump and others to consistently acknowledge this did the country great harm. But let’s not lose sight of what the risks of flu should then have meant to us. In the last pre-pandemic season, there were about 34,000 flu deaths in this country, or about one death for every thousand cases of flu. That is to say, your generalized risk of dying from the flu, if you caught it, was about one in a thousand.

Most of us did very little to mitigate those odds, beyond getting vaccinated of course. Your boss wouldn’t have considered avoiding the flu as a good reason not to come to work. Your friends wouldn’t have cut you much slack if you skipped socializing during flu season.

But in some special circumstances, things were entirely different. My late wife spent the last two and half years of her life in a nursing home with a form of early onset dementia. While she was in her fifties, almost everyone else there was elderly. In each of the three winters she was in the home, the place was closed to visitors at some point because of flu. This added heartbreak to heartbreak, but it was entirely reasonable. Nearly three in four flu deaths in the last pre-pandemic season occurred among seniors. Someone aged 65 or more who contracted the flu had a chance of dying of it of about one in 120. (By contrast, while more than 85% of the breakthrough deaths are among those over 65, the COVID death rate for fully vaccinated seniors is one in about 25,000.)

That is to say that the risk of death from flu in a nursing home was almost a thousand times as large as the risk of death from COVID to the overall vaccinated population, and the risk of dying from the flu if you caught it as a senior was more than 200 times greater than the risk from COVID if you are currently disease-free, similarly aged and fully vaccinated.

It’s about making judgments

Let’s bring all these numbers back to news judgments. The overall risk of flu to those in nursing homes was and remains a story. The limited quarantine of particular nursing homes to deal with flu risk wasn’t and isn’t. I don’t recall a single story about the times I couldn’t visit my wife, and I see no reason why there should have been such stories.

We badly need a similar sense of proportionality in our coverage of the pandemic, especially as the disease perhaps become endemic. Yes, the rate of breakthrough infections is a story, especially in the context of how effective the vaccines have been. Yes, the fact that those vaccinated may continue to spread disease is newsworthy, especially in the context of how they seem less likely to do so than those who are not vaccinated.

In covering air crashes, we focus on them as anomalies, not as harbingers of doom. That sense of proportionality is not only appropriate, it also permits us to call out the more important—and even more rare—occasions when entire types of aircraft may be unsafe, raising a much greater risk. If such a story arises with respect to approved vaccines, it will demand our attention.

COVID has challenged us all in myriad ways, including in our news judgments. It is time now, I think, for more careful calibration of those judgments, one based less on fears and more on facts.

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I say “perhaps” because CDC says that 440 of the 2063 deaths (21%) occurred among people who “had no symptoms of COVID-19 or their … death was not COVID-related.” It is more than a little puzzling why these people are included in the death count, but I have left them there to be conservative. If they are excluded, the breakthrough death count falls to 1623, and the rate among the fully vaccinated to one in 105,000, not much greater than the risk of being killed by a lightning strike.