Even if you don’t believe that it is happening in any particular case, let’s stipulate that it is possible for the news media and political elite to affect how the rest of us see an issue of current concern. The way they convey facts (and the facts that they choose to convey) creates a framework in which we understand the world around us. They give us a sense of how we should feel about things.
That’s why it’s crucial to try to maintain perspective.
So, when WPRI backs up Governor Raimondo’s crackdown on beaches with a headline like “RI beach communities seeing fastest growth of new COVID-19 cases,” it’s worth asking ourselves a simple question: How significant is this, really?
Helpfully, WPRI provides an interactive map that readers can hover over to see actual numbers. The color coding is supposed to emphasize the point that the waterfront towns are in the red. They’re dangerous, because “of overcrowding and lax social distancing on beaches and boats.”
Put aside the fact that our entire state is basically coastal and people from every other city and town access the water, too. Perhaps more in some cases. Nevermind that arguably more than half of the cities and towns that actually touch the water are not in the red. Just look at the numbers.
WPRI marks Jamestown as a hot spot of COVID-19 based on an increase of two cases in about two weeks. That could be a single couple that caught the disease anywhere in the world. Charlestown is in the worst group, with a 25% increase. That actually means six people. A family of six just back from a vacation could do that.
Keep in mind that thousands of people live in each of these towns.
On the other hand, Providence is not in the red, despite an increase of 216 residents. The difference is that there were already 5,840 people in the city who had tested positive. In other words, the underlying beachfront story is that small numbers of new people tested positive in communities that had small numbers of cases to begin with.
One town that jumped out at me on the map is Middletown, which is also in the worst group, with an increase of 14 cases from 55 to 69. The reason that caught my attention was that the local Newport Daily News had just recently run with its own scary headline, “Tiverton has highest coronavirus positive test rate in Newport County,” whereas Middletown was the lowest.
As I noted on Tiverton Fact Check, 91 cases in Tiverton seems like a lot compared with 55 in Middletown, but in proportion to population, it’s the difference between 99.7% of Middletown being COVID-free and 99.4% of Tiverton. Randomly pick Tiverton residents, and you’ll go through 174 before finding anybody who has tested positive over the past six months, and they won’t all have active infections. Moreover, simply encountering them is not a guarantee of catching the disease.
As I found on local Facebook, trying to apply some sort of context can make one a target. Suggesting that the facts justify caution, but not “living in fear,” apparently makes a person a reckless propagandist who wants people to die.
That is the attitude that has been fostered by the presentation of COVID-19 to the public, which has created a terrible atmosphere in which to be making major life-and-society-affecting decisions.