Warnings from public health experts that ending social distancing measures too early would lead to a resurgence in COVID-19 cases were left out of a recent segment from Sinclair Broadcast Group chief political correspondent Scott Thuman about protests against the measures. Thuman’s news segment aired on dozens of local news stations across the country.
When President Donald Trump began pushing to end social distancing restrictions on May 1, experts warned that it was too soon.
Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said, “I think it’ll be too soon to open the country on May 1. ... If we’re not careful when we ease social distancing, we’ll re-create the conditions that existed back in early March.”
Christopher Murray, director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, echoed that sentiment, warning about lifting all restrictions in May that “by July or August, we could be back in the same situation we are now.” He added: “We have to be very careful and make sure that we don’t sort of lose all the effort that the American people have put into closures by premature opening.”
Dr. Peter Winkelstein, executive director of University of Buffalo’s Institute for Healthcare Informatics, explained: “We are controlling [the spread of the virus] right now largely through social distancing, and that’s working. But we’re sitting on a powder keg and if we lift the lid too quickly, it will blow up.”
Healthline interviewed multiple public health specialists who also warned about the dangers of opening states up for business too soon. And according to a report from The Center for Public Integrity, the Trump administration's own internal projection in early April estimated “more than 300,000 Americans could die” if all social distancing measures were rescinded.
But no such warnings were included in an April 17 segment from Sinclair's Thuman, which led with footage from protests against the social distancing measures and highlighted Trump’s support of the protests. The segment included quotes from Republican officials from two states announcing an easing or end of social distancing restrictions, but no further public health context on the dangers posed by these changes.
The news package aired on at least 38 stations in 28 states and Washington, D.C., according to a Media Matters search of the iQ media database -- including in states that have seen recent protest activity such as Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. (A slightly different written version of the report appeared on Sinclair news station websites as well.)
The news segment also failed to address how extreme many of these protesters are. An April 17 report from The Guardian noted that some of the protests are “supported by street-fighting rightwing groups like the Proud Boys, conservative armed militia groups, religious fundamentalists, anti-vaccination groups and other elements of the radical right.” Some protesters have also held up signs referencing the dangerous QAnon conspiracy theory.
The vast majority of Americans also disagree with the view that it's time to “reopen” the country. A Pew Research Center poll released on April 16, a day before Thuman’s segment aired, found that “about twice as many Americans say their greater concern is that state governments will lift restrictions on public activity too quickly (66%) as say it will not happen quickly enough (32%).” And a Yahoo News/YouGov poll released April 20 found that “an overwhelming majority of Americans, Republicans included, are rejecting right-wing protests — encouraged by President Trump — to immediately ‘reopen’ the country.” Yahoo! News emphasized just how fringe these views are: “Only 22 percent of Americans say they support the protesters. Despite Trump’s messaging, even Republicans oppose the protests 47 percent to 36 percent. Asked whether they agree or disagree with Trump’s ‘LIBERATE’ tweets, only a quarter of Americans say they agree.”
Glossing over the full context of these protests -- especially information about serious public health risks -- isn't just a journalistic disservice. It could cost lives.