Far too much time and energy is wasted in this country arguing about whether lefty-righty bias has driven the faith in traditional media to an all-time low.
Yes, it would be nice if the media operated without bias, but that is impossible. Bias is little more than a reflection of human judgment, and judgment is inevitable on the part of intelligent and educated people.
The only definitive way to avoid the intrusion of judgment is to embrace ignorance, and that is not a sensible solution.
I once worked for an editor at the Anchorage Daily News (ADN) who seemed to think ignorance was the ultimate form of objectivity. His idea of improving reportage was to have stories covered by people with no knowledge of the subject material.
It was a little like a hospital trying to eradicate malpractice lawsuits by getting rids of all the surgeons and replacing them with mechanics. I said then, and I will repeat here once again, that any story reported well by a good reporter interested in at least an effort at fairness will – no matter the reporters bias – be better than a story reported by someone who knows nothing.
A reminder of this came today in an ADN story about the pandemic headlined “Bethel hospital patient needing treatment in Anchorage had to wait an extra day for an ICU bed.”
In defense of the state’s largest newspaper, the story was not reported by its staff. It was picked up from the Associated Press (AP) which picked it up from KYUK, the public radio station in the rural hub city of Bethel in Western Alaska.
The story had a huge reporting problem obvious to anyone who has been even remotely paying attention to the pandemic in the 49th state. ICUs – intensive care units – at hospitals in Alaska have been running significantly below capacity since the pandemic began, in part because Alaskans in general have been avoiding hospitals (and possibly dying at home) for fear of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and in part because a state home to 750,000 people who have become accustomed to welcoming more than 2 million tourists every summer saw a fraction of that number this year.
Worse, anyone who read that headline and the story below it, and wondered “what the hell?” could in a few clicks on a keyboard check the state’s online COVID tracker: covid19alaska.gov.
What it revealed on Friday was that 82 of the state’s 221 ICU beds – or about 37 percent – were empty. That did not necessarily mean ICU beds were available in Anchorage, but it was an easily available red flag saying there was a good possibilty the report was wrong.
Alaska’s two biggest hospital – Providence Alaska Medical Center and Alaska Regional Hospital – are located in the state’s largest city. And a quick call to Providence revealed it alone had 29 beds available, although a spokesman said excess capacity has generally been running in the low 20s.
So there could have been fewer beds available when the story was originally reported by KYUK, and some nurses who work at Providence say there have been staffing issues tied to staff reductions tied to the lack of business during the pandemic that could have in reality further reduced the number of ICU beds readily available.
A Providence spokesman said that is and was not a problem, but whether it was or not, there were clearly ICU beds available in Anchorage. That a busy reporter in Bethel might fail to double-check information picked up from the director of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation suggesting otherwise is undertsandable.
The few reporters left at local news operations are overworked, and it was the YKHC chief of staff who said, “This was an ICU-level patient, and all the ICU beds in Anchorage were full. So we’ve already reached, I think, the limits of our capacity of the healthcare of the state. So it makes some of these mitigation strategies more important.”
Reporters to some degree have to trust those in authority because journalists simply don’t have the time to check every fact. But how this story moves up the food chain through the AP and the ADN without anyone noticing is mind boggling.
Asleep at the switch?
The former reporter who first read the story and sent the link to me immediately noticed the potential problem. About 10 seconds after clicking the link, reading the story, and going to the state COVID website, it became obvious to me the story was likely wrong.
One quick phone call to Providence confirmed the more than two dozen ICU beds open there.
This sort of media error isn’t exactly fake news, which suggests a deliberate case of misinformation. But it does have one thing in common with fake news.
It follows a preconceived narrative.
COVID-19 cases in the 49th state are on the rise. This is obvously not a good thing, and Alaskans should be keeping their distance from others to slow the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The YKHC’s chief of staff clearly has good intentions when she made the claim to ICUs at capacity.
She “shared that information with Lower Kuskokwim School District Superintendent Kimberly Hankins in an interview that was aired on KYUK Wednesday, Sept. 30,” the public radio station reported. “(She) said that YKHC has mitigation measures prepared to open up more beds and increase capacity at the Bethel hospital to the extent to which they are capable.”
And it appears that at the time the statement was made there might have been a shortage of ICU beds at the Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC) in Anchorage, where many of the residents of the predominately Native community of Bethel get sent for treatment.
But the ANMC is not Anchorage, and these details are important. There are some number of Alaskans today of the belief that the media is part of a government conspiracy to over-hype the dangers of SARS-CoV-2.
The media appearing to over-hype the dangers of SARS-CoV-2, whether accidentally or intentionally, only serves to reinforce that belief. That does no one any good.
And from a purely buiness standpoint, it does the media in particular no good to get things this badly wrong. If what the media reports as “news” is no more reliable than what your friends post on Facebook or Twitter, why do you need the media?
And never mind the even bigger question of why would anyone purhcase media coverage if it’s no better than what their friends provide on online for free.