Open Letter To The ABC

An open letter to the ABC, regarding a headline (captured in archive here) and full article (captured in archive here) that proclaimed that the number of new cases had dropped for a second consecutive day.

Dear ABC,
Your article (archived here at misrepresents important data relating to the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the community. It does this by leading with a headline proclaiming that numbers have dropped for the second consecutive day. 

While it points out that this result is entirely dependent on the number of tests conducted, it doesn’t make that point until a substantial distance into the article. Moreover, it doesn’t report that number, making it impossible to determine whether the results are actually comparable.

Further, it almost completely fails to point out that the testing is neither comprehensive nor random, but is being done using very specific entry criteria that are *guaranteed* to miss and under-report certain cases of community transmission.

Neither of these critical caveats is included or suggested in the headline, which instead gives every impression that the rate of infection and its spread is decreasing, which of course is entirely unknown and unknowable, and in any case represents a picture of events up to 14 days in the past.

While I understand that these constraints are perhaps slightly complex, nevertheless given the absolutely life-and-death nature of the disease I believe that the ABC has an absolute duty to ensure that information it provides is not only factually correct but provided with the appropriate context and warnings so that people don’t draw incorrect inferences.

A headline “cases dropping” is totally irresponsible under the circumstances in my opinion, particularly since it is well known that the criteria even for allowing a test, let alone the number conducted, will omit an unknown and almost certainly growing number of cases. It’s worse because the one fact that has been emphasised again and again in the media is that we must *slow* the rate of infection, and this headline could easily lead readers to assume that this in fact has been achieved, whereas the data don’t support that conclusion at all.

I’d be grateful if in future the ABC does not publish such simplistic headlines, and provides better context.

If the number of deaths in Australia depends critically on our isolation and quarantining procedures, and it does, the ABC has a critical responsibility not to publish headlines that might lead people to think that either current procedures are working, or, worse, that they can relax their vigilance and procedures. 

There is absolutely no evidence for that, and publishing headlines that allow that inference isn’t just dangerous, in my opinion it’s irresponsible.

Thank you.

Peter Barnes