After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its data on COVID-19 deaths showing how many people also had an underlying condition, conspiracy theories about the death toll began spreading on social media and were boosted by Republican politicians. More than 90 posts on social media from TV stations owned or operated by Sinclair Broadcast Group may have misled viewers by neglecting to include relevant context about the new CDC data. While a Sinclair national correspondent later provided this information in a thorough news segment, the social media reach for dozens of stations may have made this effort too late.
As far back as April, pro-Trump media were claiming that any time a person died from COVID-19 but also had an underlying health condition -- known as a comorbidity -- that death was being misattributed to the coronavirus death toll to make Trump look bad. As Salt Lake City-based NBC affiliate KSL reported on Tuesday, some people are making the same false argument after the CDC release:
The internet was abuzz over the weekend when an updated report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention noted that 94% of COVID-19 fatalities from Feb. 1 through Aug. 22 included some comorbid factors.
Another way of looking at that is that doctors didn't list another contributing factor for 6% of 161,392 who reportedly have died from COVID-19 as of that date — either because there wasn't one or because the death certificates weren't complete. As evidenced by an array of online articles and social media posts, people interpreted this data in different ways. It included those who viewed it as COVID-19 deaths were vastly overinflated because someone who died of COVID-19 may have died because of a pre-existing condition instead.
President Donald Trump is one of those spreading this false claim, which has been debunked by USA Today, FactCheck.org, and PolitiFact. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) also pushed a similar claim, which she suggested she heard from health care providers and saw “on the news.”
On August 30 and 31, at least 55 Facebook posts and 36 Twitter posts from Sinclair stations’ social media accounts shared articles from their own or other Sinclair stations’ websites about the CDC’s update. These social media posts didn’t overtly push the same claim as Trump and others, but many lacked full context about the CDC’s data:
- ABC affiliate WICS in Illinois: “The CDC reports 9,683 died in the U.S. with only having COVID-19 listed on their death certificate.”
- Fox affiliate KMPH in California: “The CDC reports just 9,683 people in the U.S. died with only COVID-19 listed on their death certificate. All the rest had underlying conditions.”
- ABC affiliate NTV based in Nebraska: “The CDC released information showing that six percent of deaths associated with COVID-19 were caused by the virus only. The other 94 percent of deaths were associated with underlying medical conditions.”
The lack of context in these posts may have led people who follow these accounts to view the data in conspiratorial terms, as evidenced by these screenshots:
In contrast to these lacking Sinclair social media posts, a televised report from Sinclair national correspondent Ahtra Elnashar that began airing on Sinclair stations September 1 explained exactly what comorbidities are and quoted experts to refute assertions that the new data means COVID-19 isn’t so deadly.
It’s unfortunate that Sinclair stations’ uninformative social media posts may have contributed to the misinformation that Elnashar corrected in her report.