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Epidemiologist Slams ‘Malpractice’ In New York Times' Trump Coverage

The paper's political coverage of the coronavirus outbreak "has consequences for millions of people," Yale's Gregg Gonsalves wrote.

A Yale epidemiologist hit The New York Times on Tuesday morning over its coronavirus coverage after the paper ran a headline misrepresenting a claim by President Donald Trump on the state of coronavirus testing across America as true.

“Trump Suggests Lack of Testing Is No Longer a Problem. Governors Disagree,” read the headline to a March 30 story that was also featured prominently on the paper’s website homepage.

“This is journalistic malpractice,” tweeted Gregg Gonsalves, assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale and co-director of the school’s Global Health Justice Partnership.

The headline for the New York Times story that sparked outrage.
The headline for the New York Times story that sparked outrage.

“If we don’t have scale-up of testing, we will be in lock-down for months & months,” he went on. “There is no debate on this, why frame it like there is one? Next: Trump says earth flat, scientists say otherwise.” 

Later, he added: “It matters that you’re failing, and it’s not about a lowly reader trying to score points, but the fact that @NYTimes [is] eliding, equivocating on the federal response has consequences for millions of people.” 

The Times is often accused of engaging in “both-sides-ism” — or giving improper weight to both sides of a particular argument when the facts heavily favor one side. (Think: when a cable news station would ask a climate change denier for comment, when we know climate change is real.) In its coverage of Trump, the Times is often accused of “balancing” a story by printing Trump’s comments as fact — he did say those things, after all — even as it describes the reality of a situation, a practice that can be particularly glaring in its headlines. The current public health crisis, though, means that getting the correct information out to readers comes with extremely high stakes.

By The New York Times’ own reporting, officials are still struggling to make up for lost time on testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Due to flaws in testing kits, regulatory delays, a “business-as-usual” approach and a lack of leadership, the federal government royally botched America’s response to the virus, several Times reporters wrote in a story first published March 28 that drew on more than 50 sources. 

The end result is that an unknown number of people have not been able to get tested for COVID-19, exacerbating the spread of the virus. 

As the criticism gained more attention, Jonathan Martin, one of the reporters who worked on the story that sparked the tweets, took time to respond: “you’re picking the wrong fight, move along.”

The New York Times did not respond to a request for comment. 

Martin’s remark took the wrong tone, setting Gonsalves off on a series of tweets explaining the problem with the Times’ coverage. 

“Sorry, Jonathan, I don’t care how important you think you are,” Gonsalves began.

“From [Times reporter Peter Baker’s] now infamous hot take of @realDonaldTrump as he ‘struggles to find the balance between public reassurance and Panglossian dismissiveness’ your collective reporting on the political aspects of this have been off-the-mark,” he wrote. (Baker’s story was titled “For Trump, Coronavirus Proves to Be an Enemy He Can’t Tweet Away.”)

Gonsalves went on: “Everything is a Punch & Judy Show, and the real story of the absolute and continuing failure of the response to #coronavirus gets obscured in your reporting as ‘who’s winning the day’ in DC.”

And on: “There is tremendous reporting going on on the pandemic, but it’s from places like @statnews or @propublica who take their task with a bit more seriousness than your political reporters.” 

He also made clear that his criticism went beyond one headline, describing how the problem of allowing the politics of the day lead the front page during a pandemic does readers a disservice by limiting their knowledge of how the disease is spreading. 

“This is an emergency, act like it,” he said.

Later, he added: “The political desk is out of their league on this. When you’re in DC and also a hammer everything looks like a nail, so you get no context, deeper understanding of the issues that science/health reporters understand by years of practice.”

To prove he wasn’t “a 100% hater” Gonsalves peppered in a little praise for the paper ― for its health reporters and select opinion columnists, anyway. 


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