A year or so ago, we introduced the concept of being a “non-denominational skeptic” on the blog, as it related to covering the news. In short, it comes down to the idea that whether something fits your world view or runs counter to it, you owe it to your readers to be skeptical of claims of others before you report them as fact.
It’s time to break this club out of the bag again, as we deal with the media’s latest coronavirus-related obsession: COVID parties.
(Full disclosure: When this story first emerged, I shared it with some folks on Facebook. As friends noted, it seemed like BS, but I figured it came from CNN, so it was likely not as BS as it seems. Not exactly the standards I’m asking for here. Mea Culpa.)
According to multiple media reports, “young people” in Alabama are hosting parties where people do all sorts of stupid things in an attempt to get the coronavirus and be the first among their peers to test positive. The story finds its roots with a city official in Tuscaloosa, who made this statement:
Tuscaloosa City Councilor Sonya McKinstry said students have been organizing “COVID parties” as a game to intentionally infect each other with the contagion that has killed more than 127,000 people in the United States. She said she recently learned of the behavior and informed the city council of the parties occurring in the city.
She said the organizers of the parties are purposely inviting guests who have COVID-19.
“They put money in a pot and they try to get COVID. Whoever gets COVID first gets the pot. It makes no sense,” McKinstry said. “They’re intentionally doing it.”
McKinstry’s statement seemed to gain traction with support from Fire Chief Randy Smith, who spoke at a council session about the issue:
“We thought that was kind of a rumor at first,” Smith told the council members. “We did some research. Not only do the doctors’ offices confirm it but the state confirmed they also had the same information.”
Having been a college-age person and having spent the better part of my life around them, there is very little that would surprise me anymore. When you mix in the Bizzaro-style world we seem to be living through these days, almost every bet I would make as being a “no-brainer” seems to have a “except for that one time” caveat to it.
Also, if you have watched ANY coverage of ANY events involving ANY human beings where youth, alcohol and questionable clothing choices are involved, you will no longer doubt that ANYTHING is off the table when it comes to stupidity. To wit:
Not even SNL could not write something as ridiculous as this actual, real news report from my local station pic.twitter.com/VVTziwuyOd
— ma andreina (@maria_rendon97) May 18, 2020
That said, we need to break this down:
- McKinstry gives no source for her information. I know that we have the right to quote official sources in an official capacity without fear, but if I’m thinking of publishing this content (as multiple outlets including CNN and ABC have) I’d like to know where she heard this.
- I don’t know anything about McKinstry. In fact, trying to Google her, all I could get was coverage from all over the world about this statement. What else I could find told me that she has about 20 Twitter followers, she represents District 7 and she was elected in 2013. I could make the argument that this is good, in that she’s not like Louie Gohmert, whose consistent, random stupidity is the stuff of political legend. That said, if I’m spreading a “viral” story, I want to know a little more about the source.
- Randy Smith’s statement wasn’t filled with blinding specificity, either. His “we did some research” line is the kind of thing you’d expect to hear on “Pawn Stars” before a dude named Jethro asked for $10,000 on his mint condition Sam Horn rookie card. Also, I’d love to know how doctors and “the state” confirmed this.
Could this be true? Sure. Could it be equally likely that it’s false? You bet. Which is where the skeptics like Gilad Edelman of Wired come in:
You’ll notice immediately that Smith didn’t say anything about people trying to get sick, let alone betting on who could do it first. So why is everyone saying that’s what happened? The notion seems to have originated with McKinstry, who shared it with ABC News after the meeting. It’s not clear whether McKinstry had a source for this idea, and she did not reply to WIRED’s request for comment. The Alabama Department of Health responded with a statement that it “has not been able to verify such parties have taken place.” It’s not even clear that the fire chief had it right about kids going to parties while knowing they were sick. (The Tuscaloosa Fire Department did not reply to a request for comment, either.) But that didn’t stop the dogpile of national media outlets repeating and amplifying the Covid betting-pot story as if it were fact.
He’s right on all of this, citing previous “the sky is falling” stories of COVID parties all across the country. That said, what Edelman has is not proof, but a pile of people not getting back to him and a precedent of this not happening elsewhere. The headline of “COVID Parties are not a Thing” would seem to indicate he disproved something in a definitive form. That’s not the case here.
Just because something affirms your world view (We should trust local officials, college students are drunken idiots, Alabama is Charles Darwin’s waiting room etc.) or runs counter to it, it doesn’t mean you should jump to conclusions. This is where being a non-denominational skeptic comes into play.
So, going forward, here are three tips to consider when covering a story like this:
- If your mother says she loves you, go check it out: Stories gain traction in some cases because other people have reported on them, so we figure it must be fine. That’s how a lot of stupid stuff gets spread rapidly and it doesn’t cover any of us with any glory. Go get the information you want to publish for yourself and adhere to the standard of the non-denominational skeptic. “Where did you get this?” is a fine question to ask. If you are unsatisfied with the answer, you can make some choices about what to do next, which leads us to the second point…
- The duty to report is not the duty to publish: When it comes to a story like this, if it is true, you should publish the hell out of it. People who are doing dumb things that are potentially lethal should be stopped at all cost, especially given the transmission and fatality rates surrounding this virus. That said, if you report and report and report and you can’t meet a standard of certainty that this is happening, you don’t HAVE TO publish it. Journalists have a duty to report, but not necessarily the duty to publish content. Publishing stuff you are iffy about just because you gathered it has the same internal logic as eating a plate of rotten food that you know will make you sick because, “I paid $5 for this and I’m getting my money’s worth!”
- Check your biases: Some things tend to feel right because they represent a pattern that meshes with our sense of reality. That’s where we owe it to our readers to be doubly careful. Not every story we hear that fits a pattern is truthful and not every incident we encounter that reinforces our way of thinking should be considered evidence. Credibility is not a boomerang; if you throw it away, it isn’t coming back. Go after each and every assertion you gather with the same vigor, regardless of how you feel about it personally. Your readers will reap the benefits.