“Words matter,” as Barack Obama once famously observed. We are learning increasingly in these fractious times just how much words matter. We see it in particular in our news reporting, which tediously often is filtered through a political lens. To appreciate how pernicious this practice is, consider the results of a 2014 study by the Media Insight Project that found that 6 in 10 people get their news by skimming the headlines. Changing or omitting a single word can, thus, make a world of difference. (RELATED: NYT quietly rewrites headline on failed stimulus — twice — to make Dems look less guilty)
A fresh example of this problem can be found in this morning’s headlines — one in particular from NBC News. It reads “Man dies after ingesting chloroquine in an attempt to prevent coronavirus.” Chloroquine is the much-in-the-news malaria drug, clinical trials of which as a treatment for coronavirus are set to begin today. Its potential to mitigate the symptoms of the virus is a point of hot debate in the media. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, warned in an interview on Saturday (via The Hill):
Many things you hear out there are what I call anecdotal reports. They may be true, but they’re anecdotal. … If you really want to definitively know if something works, you have to do the kind of trial that you get the good information with.
But some media outlets have already made up their mind that nothing Donald Trump endorses can possibly work. The USA editorial board published a fevered opinion piece the same day titled “Coronavirus treatment: Dr. Donald Trump peddles snake oil and false hope.” I believe this ultimately has more to do with the paper’s dislike of the messenger more than the message, but that’s grist for another post.
For now, let’s focus on that NBC News story. For the six in ten readers who get no further than the headline, this one sounds like an out-and-out indictment of chloroquine. But that turns out to be misleading, as you learn almost instantly upon reading the article. “The toxic ingredient they consumed,” paragraph two informs us, “was not the medication form of chloroquine, used to treat malaria in humans. Instead, it was an ingredient listed on a parasite treatment for fish.”
The article goes on to note that the man’s wife, who is in intensive care herself, had “watched televised briefings during which President Trump talked about the potential benefits of chloroquine.” Alarms went off in her head. She recalled having used chloroquine previously to treat her koi fish. “I saw it sitting on the back shelf and thought, ‘Hey, isn’t that the stuff they’re talking about on TV?’,” she is quoted as saying.
The story is tragic and contains an important lesson about the danger of “a little learning.”
I believe there is also a lesson in there for NBC News. Will they heed it going forward?
*UPDATE* The Since this post went live, numerous headlines and teasers have appeared that totally distort the story. Here’s a tweet promoting a retelling of the story at The Hill:
— The Hill (@thehill) March 24, 2020
This is unquestionably fake news since the substance the man and his wife ingested was clearly not the “malaria medication touted by Trump as possible cure for coronavirus.”