The media

Changing Attitudes to Lockdown in Left-Wing Media

We know that public health authorities have done major U-turns on both lockdowns and face masks. These things were advised against in the pre-Covid era, but they’ve since become part of ‘The Science’ we’re all meant to follow.

What about left-wing media outlets, which have been so insistent on the need for restrictions? Have they always sung the same tune regarding lockdown, or has their stance shifted along with ‘The Science’?

In the Anglosphere, two of the most influential left-wing outlets are The Guardian and the New York Times. Let’s begin with the former.

On 2nd Februrary 2020, The Guardian ran an article titled ‘China’s reaction to the coronavirus outbreak violates human rights’. (Hat tip to Francois Balloux for bringing this piece to my attention.)

“That the Chinese government can lock millions of people into cities with almost no advance notice,” the author wrote, “should not be considered anything other than terrifying.” Although part of her objection was that residents “had no time to buy food, medicine, or other essentials”, the use of “terrifying” suggests a certain scepticism about the policy itself.

“International law,” she went on to note, “is clear that during a time of public health emergency, any restrictions on human rights should be based on legality, necessity, proportionality and grounded in evidence.” And as people like Francis Hoar have argued, it’s far from clear that lockdowns meet this standard.

On 3rd February, The Guardian published an article titled ‘More surveillance, tighter controls: China’s coronavirus crackdown’. The author noted: “Observers and human rights groups say authorities are going too far.”

Yet one month later, the paper seemed much more sanguine, running a piece that described China’s lockdown as “brutal but effective”. Based on reports that case numbers had been brought down dramatically, the authors wrote, “Beijing’s approach appears vindicated”.

The Guardian later editorialised in favour of both the first and second U.K. lockdowns. Neither of these editorials mentioned “human rights” (though the first did note that citizens are “willing to cede their liberties” once the state “takes responsibility”).

Now let’s look at the Gray Lady, America’s newspaper of record. On 22nd January 2020, the Times ran an article titled ‘Scale of China’s Wuhan Shutdown Is Believed to Be Without Precedent’.

“China,” the author wrote, “is engaging in a balancing act with a long and complicated history fraught with social, political and ethical concerns.”

The author quoted a legal expert, who said that “the shutdown would almost certainly lead to human rights violations and would be patently unconstitutional in the United States”. This expert said that selective quarantines “could be effective”, but that China’s response “goes much further than that”.

Fast forward to March, and the Times was out in force making the case for a national lockdown. “All Americans need to shelter in place,” the editorial thundered. Like in The Guardian’s pro-lockdown editorials, no mention was made of “human rights”.

However, the paper did find space to write that “the United States still has a chance to apply hard lessons learned by China”.

To be clear: I’m not claiming The Guardian or The Times did anything fundamentally wrong from a journalistic standpoint. It’s good for newspapers to air a variety of views. And they should be free to change their editorial stance as new information comes in.

What’s more, China’s lockdown – from what we can tell – was more draconian than the ones imposed in Europe and the U.S. So it’s not necessarily inconsistent to defend the latter while criticising the former.

However, the timing and wording of the relevant articles clearly raises questions about the intellectual basis for lockdowns. Reading the early pieces about China’s lockdown, followed by the later editorials, one is struck by the difference in emphasis: human rights and civil liberties versus case and death numbers.

It all adds to the impression that lockdowns were implemented frenetically, without sufficient regard for individual rights, let alone overall costs and benefits.

Australian Cartoonist Sacked after Linking Mandatory Vaccination to Tiananmen Square

After releasing a cartoon on Instagram attacking the Australian Government’s push for mandatory vaccination, cartoonist Michael Leunig (pictured above) was later informed by the Age daily newspaper that he would no longer be working for them in his capacity as a Political Cartoonist. The cartoon was rejected for publication before Leunig released the material on social media, causing a backlash from pro-mandate accounts, while prompting the newspaper’s editor to inform Leunig that he was disconnected from the audience. RT has the story.

Speaking to The Australian on Monday, Leunig said that while the editorial team has censored about a dozen of his works this year, the last straw appeared to be an anti-mandate cartoon which was a play on the iconic ‘tank man’ photo. Leunig’s cartoon shows a man staring down a tank, with its main gun being replaced by a syringe.

The original photo depicts a lone Chinese protester standing before a line of tanks during the 1989 pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square.

While his cartoon was rejected by The Age, Leunig published the drawing on Instagram, triggering backlash from the proponents of vaccine mandates.

Shortly after the controversy erupted, Leunig, who worked at the newspaper for over 20 years, was told that his services as a Political Cartoonist were no longer needed. Gay Alcorn, Editor of The Daily Age, reportedly told the artist that he was “out of touch” with readers before notifying him of his dismissal. While Alcorn praised Leunig as “brilliant” in a comment to The Australian, he confirmed that his works would no longer appear on the editorial page. The newspaper still plans to commission lifestyle cartoons from Leunig, however.

Leunig accused the newspaper of “wokeism and humorlessness“, defending the cartoon as an accurate reflection of the times.

Worth reading in full.

Why Are People’s Risk Perceptions So Skewed?

Yesterday I noted that, 18 months after the start of the pandemic, a sizeable chunk of Americans still dramatically overestimate the risks of Covid. In a recent poll, more than one third said the risk of being hospitalised if you’re not vaccinated is at least 50%.

Of course, you’d expect some people to get the answer wrong just because we’re dealing with a small quantity, and there’s always going to be some degree of overestimation. But many people were off by a factor more than 10. What accounts for this?

Interestingly, Democrat voters’ guesses were much higher than Republican voters’ – about twice as many Democrats said the risk of being hospitalised if you’re not vaccinated is at least 50%. This suggests a role for ideology.

Throughout the pandemic, the ‘Democrat position’ has been to support restrictions and mandates, whereas the ‘Republican position’ has been to oppose such measures. This is clearly visible in a plot of U.S. states by average stringency index. Almost all the ‘red’ states are on the left-hand side, while almost all the ‘blue’ states are on the right.

Given that partisans (on all sides) like to avoid cognitive dissonance, they tend to adopt beliefs that are consistent with their party’s platform. Since Democrat politicians have been busy imposing all sorts of restrictions and mandates, Democrat voters have adopted beliefs that imply those measures were justified.

Most survey respondents don’t know numbers like ‘the risk of hospitalisation for people who aren’t vaccinated’ off the top of their head. Instead, they probably make a guess based on all the relevant information they can recall.

Democrat voters, who’ve spent the pandemic consuming media like MSNBC, CNN and NPR, will recall numerous incidents of pundits saying that Covid is extremely dangerous, and we have to do whatever we can to stop the spread.

They will also recall that they were locked down for months, that their kids’ schools were closed, and that they had to wear a mask whenever they went to the grocery store. 

Putting all this information together, they will tend to assume that the risk of being hospitalised from Covid is extremely high. ‘Why else,’ they might ask, ‘would there have been so many restrictions?’

Note: Republicans also overestimated the risk of being hospitalised from Covid, albeit to a lesser extent than Democrats. This indicates that people’s skewed risk perceptions cannot be blamed solely on the content of left-wing media (or the policies implemented in ‘blue’ states).  

The psychological quirk that may account for people’s skewed risk perceptions has a name in psychology: the availability heuristic. As Steven Pinker notes, “people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind”.

Because plane crashes always make the news, people tend to overestimate the risks of air travel. And they may overestimate the risks of Covid for the same reason.

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve been treated to morbid ‘daily death numbers’ – but for only one cause of death. Perhaps if these figures had been reported for all causes of death, people’s risk perceptions would be slightly less skewed. (Or perhaps they’d just be terrified of everything…)

During a pandemic, we obviously do want people to take precautions; we don’t want them nonchalantly walking into a care home when they have a high fever and a nasty cough. Yet – contrary to what some in government seem to believe – we don’t want people to be utterly terrified either.

There’s been so much attention on people claiming Covid is “just the flu” that the media has largely ignored the other end of the spectrum: people who believe Covid is the bubonic plague!

We can agree it’s bad if people underestimate the risks. But it’s also bad if they overestimate the risks. We want them to have the right risk perceptions. That way, they can make informed decisions.

Recent Coverage of Lab Leak Theory Was Driven by Right-Wing Media

In a recent article, I noted that many left-wing commentators are still reluctant to concede that Covid might have escaped from a lab. Why? It’s not because the lab leak theory is ‘racist’, or that it makes China – America’s ‘enemy’ – look good.

Rather, it’s because the theory makes ‘experts’ look bad, and – more importantly – makes the right look good. After all, right-wing Republicans have been claiming that a lab leak was possible since early last year. (At the time of course, they were denounced as ‘conspiracy theorists’.)

Donald Trump entertained the theory in April of 2020. If evidence eventually proves him right, the man’s critics (of whom there are plenty in the mainstream media) will have a lot of egg on their face.

While my article relied on anecdotal reports of the left’s dislike for the lab leak, a new study confirms that recent coverage of the theory has been driven by right-wing media.

David Rozado tracked media coverage by counting the number of times relevant terms (‘lab leak’, ‘laboratory leak’ etc.) were mentioned in 12 media outlets. He then computed, for each week since the start of 2021, total mentions as a percentage of all words published that week. This was done separately for each of the 12 outlets.

Rozado’s main figure is shown below. Each colour corresponds to a different outlet: turquoise is Fox News; faded green is the New York Post; grey is the Wall Street Journal; and orange is the Washington Post – the only left-leaning outlet that has covered the lab leak extensively. (For further details, see p. 8 of Rozado’s paper.)

The chart confirms that media coverage of the lab leak was all but absent until May of 2021, when it rose dramatically. A disproportionate share of the recent coverage is accounted for by just two right-wing outlets: Fox News and the New York Post.

In an attempt to explain the trend in media coverage over time, Rozado superimposed lines corresponding to certain key events, such as the publication of the WHO’s report on its visit to Wuhan.

Noting that the coloured bars start to get taller after the publication of Nicholas Wade’s essay on May 5th, Rozado notes “this particular event could have triggered increased media coverage of the lab-leak hypothesis”.

However, it seems more likely that an event on May 14th is what triggered the increased media coverage, namely the publication of a letter in Science signed by 18 experts, calling for a new investigation into the origins of Covid. “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable,” the letter said.

Whichever event or events led to the rise in media coverage, Rozado’s paper provides a valuable insight into the media’s coverage of the pandemic. And it’s worth reading in full.