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CNN Runs Coronavirus Vaccine Headline Opposite of Actual Poll Result; Somewhat Clarifies

Trump and Fauci discuss the plan for combating coronavirus on March 20, 2020, at the White House

Alex Wong, Getty Images

CNN tweeted a polarizing and surprising statistic this week that suggested a large majority of Americans were in support of continuing strong isolation measures until a vaccine for Covid-19 is developed.

“68% of Americans say a coronavirus vaccine is needed before returning to normal life, a new survey finds,” it said. As one might expect, this stat became a football in the open-don’t open debate on social media.

The problem is that the claim is not remotely true. It’s not “partially” untrue, nor is it merely “misleading.” It is, in fact, grossly untrue. Patently. Outright incorrect.

The article at CNN which was linked in the tweet, made the same claim in the page title at the time of the update.

But the headline of that entry has a different description of the statistics, now: “68% of Americans say an available vaccine is very important before returning to normal life, new survey finds”

The reason that’s worded differently is because of what the survey actually says, which is not what the tweet says.

For clarity, here is the full question, with the specific result regarding a vaccine.

For the full set of responses, click this thumbnail to open the image in a new tab.

Obviously, the fact that 68% of respondents deemed a vaccine “important” in their willingness to return to “normal activities” is not the same thing as saying that 68% of Americans say a vaccine is “needed” before “returning to normal life.”

It should also go without saying that neither the actual measure in the poll of “willingness to return to normal activities” nor the CNN rewrite of “returning to normal life” are especially scientific measures in their own right. If you decide to go back to work and school before there is a vaccine, but perhaps avoid crowded dance floors, that could be considered not resuming “normal activities”. It’s a wide range of possible definitions.

Even worse, other survey questions make the CNN headline even more blatantly wrong. Here is an explanation, from Arc Digital editor Nicholas Grossman who noted that the CNN item mentioned (but did not link to) “two Gallup surveys.” He looked them up.

I searched Gallup’s polling on coronavirus, and the survey questions are less ambiguous regarding “normal life,” with results that differ substantially from CNN’s claim.

One question asks “how soon would you return to your normal day-to-day activities” if “there were no government restrictions,” giving four options. The most popular answer is “after the number of new cases declines significantly,” getting 40 percent in the most recent survey. The least popular answer is “after a coronavirus vaccine is developed.” Only 9 percent went with that.

“Claiming that this survey shows that ‘68% of Americans say a vaccine is needed before returning to normal life’ is an egregious misreading of the data, writes Grossman. “Looking at the two Gallup questions that mention vaccines, the data shows that Americans are thinking about a lot of things, and primarily concerned about a decline in new cases.”

In fact, it’s worse than an egregious misreading, and it’s not simply misleading or requiring clarification. Their headline indicates the opposite of what the Gallup shows. The survey shows that only 9% of would definitely wait until there is a vaccine before returning to normal day-to-day activities. That’s a small minority, not a large majority.

“CNN should delete the tweet, fix the article, issue a correction, and be a lot more careful to accurately represent survey data in the future,” said Grossman in his article. Good advice, but CNN only took part of it.

They changed the headline to what it says now, and added this to the news item:

CLARIFICATION: The headline on this post was updated to clarify that the survey found 68% of Americans say an available vaccine is very important before returning to normal life. The post was also clarified to emphasize that respondents were rating the importance of each benchmark to their willingness to return to regular activities.

A relatively minor “clarification” is not a correction for a factually inaccurate headline, and the tweet sharing that inaccurate result remained live for a while even after the clarification was made. Minutes before this post was published, it was finally taken down.

The American people rightly view the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, as well as the pandemic and virus itself, as immensely complicated issues with many contributing factors, even more things to consider, and as situations where every action has potentially enormous consequences. It is bad enough that politicians and partisans try to take that and make it a black and white, vote-getting issue.

It’s even much worse when a news organization plays the game. With misinformation and disinformation at the top of every news outlet’s list of concerns, it would be great if they could work on their own accuracy and representations.

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