Confusing and Unreliable Data on Infected Cases and Deaths Leads to Disinformation
Confusing and Unreliable Data on Infected Cases and Deaths Leads to Disinformation
The media has turned into counters of the infected and dead.
When all else failed, journalists added the numbers of daily infected cases, recoveries and deaths from COVID-19 in Bosnia and Herzegovina – by hand. Data was collected from various sources (hospitals, cantons, entities), which often led to confusion and publishing inconsistent data. Although journalists received information from official sources, so they cannot be said to have disinformed the public, there was still a lot of confusion.
This is the result of the complexity of BiH’s health system, as well as other levels of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the desire of some newsrooms to be first without waiting for consolidated data for the whole country published by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Newsrooms do not get consolidated and timely data. They often publish numbers of infected cases and deaths which were not collected in the past 24 hours, but over the past few days, so different media outlets publish different information at different times. This has been going on for nine months, making understandable the dissatisfaction of readers, listeners or viewers who rightfully expect precise and reliable information during the pandemic, even if the information is statistical (mere adding up of numbers). The media is obligated to provide it, just as experts are obligated to provide clear data – and all of this has to be complete, true and consolidated. Providing incomplete or false information leads to disinformation and can contribute to the feeling of uncertainty, fear and panic and have grave consequences. For this, both experts and journalists have a great responsibility to protect the health and lives of people.
In regard to statistical presentation of the number of infected cases, recoveries and deaths, communicologist Seid Masnica thinks they were useful and important at the start of the pandemic, “especially because they impacted the public to take the epidemiological situation and new way of life more seriously, to adapt to and respect the new situation of reformed life habits.” Masnica goes on to say that the numbers then became part of daily life, so “the public did not respond to them anymore because the monotonous statistical presentations and numbers of the crisis headquarters got confusing instead of informing.” In addition to this, he adds, sometimes the statistical data from a few days of testing was processed at once, but presented as the numbers just for the preceding day. When some media outlets correctly presented the published data as added numbers from the previous few days, “the public lost interest in statistics and any published information with statistical content,” Masnica says.
Data usually late and not from a single source
Damir Marjanović, genetics and bioengineering professor, argues that “timely, precise and accurate preparation of information is extremely important.” He also says that, a few months ago, “specific European institutions for monitoring data characterized information from Bosnia and Herzegovina as confusing and unreliable because it is usually late and not from a single source.”
The fact is that the Ministry of Civil Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina has meanwhile taken over consolidating and publishing of information about infected cases and deaths at the country level, but Marjanović warns that “many people are confused by the data coming from relevant entity-level institutions, and even cantonal crisis headquarters.”
“Centralisation of data, its accurate and precise publishing and the routine in this process that can be seen in other countries, greatly facilitate the work of people who monitor the data professionally and prevent additional bombing with insufficiently clarified ‘numbers’ thrust upon ordinary citizens who listen to the news,” says Marjanović. He also notes that “bombing” with numbers, not only by the media, but also on social networks, cannot benefit the average person in any way.
In this sense, the media have a great responsibility because they have to clearly cite their sources, but also be a reliable source of information to citizens. Any unofficial source that provides inaccurate information can easily mislead and potentially spread false or inaccurate information, mainly through social networks posts. Media expert Sandra Bašić Hrvatin, professor at the Faculty of Humanities in Koper, warned about this early on in the pandemic stating that publishing verified and accurate information is the only way to prevent panic caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“The flood of disinformation on social networks has contributed to the atmosphere of distrust – for science, experts and institutions […] The main role of the media in this situation is to regain people’s trust in institutions, to regain people’s trust in science, and not to fall for various forms of scandalous and sensationalist reporting, to explain to people through official, expert information what the virus is and how to protect themselves,” Bašić Hrvatin said for Radio Free Europe.
Sensationalism of imaginative headlines
It has been nine months since then, the media have mainly turned into counters of the infected and dead, and in the lack of other content, they competed in creating imaginative headlines, especially in the sensationalist sense (record numbers, corona rampage, terrible abyss, health system faces collapse…). Marjanović thinks that this “contributes to confusion, increases fear and everything else we definitely do not need at a time like this.”
“Instead of the daily count, I propose we establish the practice of public addresses of crisis headquarters (which must include leave decision-making to experts, only experts, and not to political persons from various professions) every week or when needed, which will not focus on the number of the dead or infected, but on suggestions, advice, and official measures,” Marjanović suggests.
He sees no reason why this should be done daily and without expert clarifications and analyses because “numbers alone (without expert analysis) leave room for various interpretations, wrong conclusions and even abuse.”
Masnica goes on to warn that, despite citing official sources (although numerous, diverse and incompatible) when publishing data, journalists can easily fall into the trap of unintentionally publishing misinformation. He criticises the media at the same time, accusing them of often being superficial in all this.
“There have been very few specialised shows adapted to the topics of the coronavirus pandemic which would, in addition to reporting information the way they did, allow citizens to learn a lot more about the pandemic, prevention and other information related to the subject,” says Masnica, excluding public broadcasters which he believes showed “a lot more professionalism and informative programming than other media outlets.”
He goes on to say that there was a lack of research on pandemic subjects, noting that the media should have featured many more specific stories “about the fates of citizens who fought the pandemic while also fighting the unprepared and disoriented health system, as well as other subjects of public interest.”
“It is also interesting to note the segment of pressure on the media by certain powerful political people in the health system, which deprived the public of objective and realistic reporting and information about the situation of the health system,” emphasised Masnica.
Marjanović has a similar plea to the media, stating that it would “be very good if there was a balance of information where ‘warning’ information would be presented and published to the same extent as ‘encouraging’ information.”
“Headlines such as another black day, black record, more deaths than ever should never overpower headlines about promising science achievements and positive trends, of which there are many. We already have 10 months of experience in all this and I’m sure that it wouldn’t hurt to take a more positive approach in the presentation of relevant facts,” Marjanović concludes.
In addition to this plea, it may be beneficial to follow the recommendations of the European Commission, although Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a member of the European Union, which state that any information about the coronavirus, including data on the number of infected, recovered and dead, should be taken only from reliable sources. Even when sharing information, especially information that is unverified and from suspicious sources and can be incorrect or mislead, it is necessary to read everything carefully because people’s health and lives are at stake.
The European Commission sends the message that the “fight against coronavirus myths and false claims saves lives.”