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SOUND OFF: Reporting coronavirus numbers is not fearmongering

Reader: So as I picked up the paper to read Tuesday morning, I was commenting to my wife, "You know, it would be nice if there was reporting of some 'good' news in all of this." "You know, some perspective, deaths in Kern County at 0.0004976 of population. Or, cases at 0.04442 of total population of Kern County. Then, I opened the paper.

Front page. Top headline: in BOLD 5/8ths inch HEADLINE: Kern sees massive COVID-19 surge; 918 new cases reported Monday.

What is the takeaway? Well, clearly, we had 918 cases in one day!!! As you know, many or most people read headlines and don't take the time to read the entire article. For those like me who did, it went on to say right out of the gate that the Delano mayor couldn't believe it! "My eyes popped out of my head." Ken Keller, CEO of Memorial Hospital, wondered if it was a mistake! Wow! But it wasn't! Michelle Corson, Kern County Public Health Services spokeswoman, confirmed the number to be accurate!!! And then, at the beginning of paragraph FIVE, it goes on to say, those 900 cases are spread over several prior days and actual case counts are more likely to be around 400. According to the Los Angeles Times (Tuesday), over the past week the county has averaged 369 case per day.

So, my observation is this: The subject headline is either incredibly misleading at best, or it is gross fearmongering and manipulation.

Is it that you (TBC) are so enlightened that you know best? "Let's scare and intimidate people to stay home for the Thanksgiving holiday ... it will be in their best interest!"

This kind of "journalism" is why the media in this country are no longer "journalists" but rather today's thought police.

— Mike Burnett, Bakersfield

Reader: Shame on you for your fearmongering and shabby front-page headline "COVID surges; 900 new cases reported." Buried in the body of the story was the acknowledgment that this was not a one-day total but included several hundred cases from prior days that had not yet been reported.

In the daily COVID update you publish, why is there a breakdown by age groups of those testing positive but not for those who have been hospitalized or have died? Your focus on only the ages of those testing positive (the vast majority of whom have minor symptoms or none at all) promotes the false narrative that we are all equally at risk of catching the virus and becoming seriously ill and dying.

Given that newspapers are struggling to survive, I would think you would be doing everything possible to provide the people of Kern County with factual news free of opinion-slanted headlines and content.

— Miguel Nidever

Peterson: Wow. Fearmongering. Manipulation. Misleading. Shabby. That's a lot to take.

Let's start with a dictionary definition of fearmongering: the action of deliberately arousing public fear or alarm about a particular issue.

I'm sorry, Mike and Miguel, but I am going to respectfully disagree with your perspective. I don't think that's what this report did at all. On any given day, Kern County Public Health Services reports a new set of data on deaths and positive cases. It's the numbers that have come through to them before their report comes out around 10 a.m. each day. It does not necessarily mean those people were found to be positive or died that day. It's what is reported new on a given day — and the numbers are going up. Often there are days when Public Health reports out 200 to 400 new cases. This day Public Health reported 918 new cases.

Miguel, you asked why we often publish the age breakdown of those testing positive but not for those who have been hospitalized or have died. The answer: We're publishing the data that is available to us. 

Every day Public Health updates the age breakdown of the positive tests. So we note that several times a week. (Early on some readers criticized the way the age breakdown is structured: ages 17 and younger; those ages 18 to 49 — admittedly quite a range; those ages 50 to 64; and those ages 65 and older. We report that because that's how Public Health offers the data, not because we, The Californian, decided it should be that way.)

I don't know, Miguel, how you jump from that to saying we're promoting a "false narrative that we are all equally at risk of catching the virus and becoming seriously ill and dying."

You have a great question about the age breakdown of the people who are hospitalized. We're not reporting that data because we don't have that.

As far as the age breakdown of the people in Kern County who have died, the county last updated those numbers on its COVID-19 dashboard on Oct. 1. (Yes, nearly two months ago.) As of then, there were 371 deaths in Kern. The age breakdown was: nobody age 17 or under; 44 people ages 18 to 49; 80 people ages 50 to 64; and 247 people ages 65 and older. Those numbers were from nearly two months ago, because, as we know, there are now 448 deaths in Kern as of Friday. (Reporter Stacey Shepard asked Public Health last week and a spokeswoman said there was no timeline on when the next update would occur.)

I'm not enlightened, nor do I know best, Mike. That's why we report the information and comments of public health experts. But here's what I do know: People are sick, some severely so. People are dying. And it's hard — really hard — to hear about the loved ones of people I know getting sick, and yes, even dying.

•••

Reader: I would like to see follow-up reporting on missing and “at-risk” people. There are often notices about a person needing to be found, but we never know if they were found. Please follow up so that we know, say, a week later or whatever that “so-and-so was found,” or “so-and-so is still missing.” That lets the public know if they still need to be searching or not.

Thank you!

— Janice French, Bakersfield

Peterson: Thank you for your note, Janice. We publish that a previously missing person has been found whenever the law enforcement agency that first alerted us to the missing person lets us know the person has been found. However, you're correct that we don't tend to follow up, say, a week or two later to say someone is still missing, unless the law enforcement agency issues another bulletin. 

•••

Peterson: I had a great conversation this week with a reader, who, among other topics, asked why we no longer published the fishing report by Jim Matthews in the sports section. I let him know it wasn't because we wanted to stop the report — we know there are avid fishermen here — but rather the author of that report, who has been writing them for California newspapers for more than 40 years, was no longer going to produce it.

Here is part of the note Matthews included with his final, Sept. 25 report: "I’m sorry to say, that I’m now pulling the plug on the newspaper part my business and this will be my final fishing report. I have been writing a weekly outdoor package for over 40 years. While a lot of you have been hit-and-miss readers of the column and news stories, most of you have been avid readers of the weekly fishing reports I’ve compiled over that same time period."

He went on to say: "It’s not retirement — why would a guy who fishes and hunts for a living retire — but it is a big change. I’ve done this every week for over 40 years. You will be able to keep up with me through my website (OutdoorNewsService.com) and my social media pages (all linked from the website). Thanks for having me into your home all these years."

The caller — I didn't ask to use his name here so I won't — suggested I look into an alternative, and I will.

What really struck me, in a good way, was that he said he reads Sound Off every time it comes out, and while he does not always agree with me, he reads it. That's great! We agreed that when we hopefully get past the pandemic, we might even talk more about news coverage over lunch. Sounds good — as long as he does not invite me to go fishing!

Executive Editor Christine Peterson answers your questions and takes your complaints about The Californian’s news coverage in this weekly feedback forum. Questions may be edited for space and clarity. To offer your input by phone, call 661-395-7649 and leave your comments in a voicemail message or email us at soundoff@bakersfield.com. Please include your name and phone number; they won’t be published.

Coronavirus Cases widget

  • Positive Cases Among Kern Residents: 158,270

  • Deaths: 1,828

  • Recovered and Presumed Recovered Residents: 150,950 

  • Percentage of all cases that are unvaccinated: 92.04

  • Percentage of all hospitalizations that are unvaccinated: 92.62 Updated: 12/3/2021.

  • Source: Kern County Public Health Services Department