Distorted Details to Make Church Seem Deadly

Mike Stanton is a former Providence Journal reporter, a successful author, and now a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut.  Observers would have reasonable expectations that his opinion is well founded in facts when a man like that tweets out:

41 people went to church, socially distanced. 24 infected, 2 dead.
Cautionary tale for everyone eager to flock back to church.
Let the spirit live within you & celebrate your fellow man at home.

Except the details of the Canadian story to which he points don’t really justify his conclusion.  In fairness, they’re peppered throughout the 827-word story, making them easy to miss (or to fail to connect), but they’re important nonetheless for anybody who honestly wants to understand the challenge we’re all facing and how we should proceed.

First, this is a single anecdote of one church.  The article does not give any indication one way or another how many other churches in Canada, North America, or Planet Earth have conducted some kind of service during these times.

Second, the congregants didn’t only go to church.  They also had a catered birthday party:

Food was served but everyone handling it wore gloves.

Third, this limited group of congregants wasn’t the only party to use the church:

It’s suspected the virus may have breached the church a day earlier when a large choir was using the facility.

Fourth, out of 41 participants in the service and party, 17 were not infected (41%), and 22 of those who were infected did not die (92%):

… 24 of the 41 people at the party ended up infected. Two of them died.

Fifth, the only identified person who died was elderly:

He was 81 but, according to his family, still very active.

To go from this set of circumstances to the conclusion that religious services are fatally dangerous requires a bit of a leap.

Contrary to Stanton’s proclamation, for believers, the primary purpose of church is not to “celebrate your fellow man,” but to commune with God.  If that’s the case, limit gatherings to just the services.  Don’t use the premises for other purposes.  Disinfect areas that are used thoroughly between events.  And encourage those who are vulnerable to COVID-19 in particular to take special precautions or abstain from attendance.  Take these steps, and the danger probably sinks at least as low as the level of risk people take gathering together in ordinary times.

This is how the media shapes a narrative.  Most people won’t read the story, taking the journalist at his word as somebody who (presumably) has digested the relevant information.  Most of those who do read it will naturally pick up on the details that serve the conclusion they were told to expect, especially when contrary details are spread out and minimized.  A new common knowledge develops that misinforms the public.

In the coming months and years, we’ll learn exactly what consequences come from irrational fear.  (Included in the tally must be the social discord from the vitriol that is so contagious on social media.)  What our information institutions ought to be doing is helping us to understand the dangers clearly enough to make good decisions that limit both the harm of the disease and the harm of our reaction to it.  That isn’t the service we’re getting from our news media.

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