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Media Groupthink Comes for Sweden

Facts take a back seat to catchphrases as the pandemic continues to be politicized

Like other public-policy issues, the COVID-19 pandemic elicits a range of perspectives. Some argue for stringent economic lockdowns, others want a more laissez-faire response.

Recent surveys confirm a divide in public opinion along partisan lines. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 57 percent of Americans believe that containing the spread of the coronavirus is the top priority, even if it hurts the economy. More than 80 percent of Democrats agree. However, two-thirds of Republicans claim that restarting the U.S. economy is more important than controlling the virus, even if it brings on public-health consequences. This has put Republican leaders in the mainstream media’s line of fire.

In recent weeks, news outlets have set their sights elsewhere, too: on Sweden, a Scandinavian country that dared to impose only a mild economic lockdown.

From the outset, the Swedish government relied primarily on voluntary social distancing guidelines, such as working from home (if possible) and avoiding public transport. The Scandinavian country still imposed mandates, such as banning gatherings of more than 50 people, but public officials generally trusted in Swedes’ individual decision-making.

Not surprisingly, the mainstream media proceeded to tear down Sweden’s “cautionary tale.” Earlier this month, the New York Times denounced the Swedish response as a “red flag,” pointing to 5,420 deaths in the country (fatalities have since increased). According to the Times, Sweden’s per-capita death toll comes out to “40 percent more deaths than the United States, 12 times more than Norway, seven times more than Finland and six times more than Denmark.”

The full story is considerably less one-sided. For example, Sweden’s neighbor to the southwest, Belgium, boasts a comparable population size and imposed a strict economic lockdown in March, yet Belgians experienced significantly higher per-million death totals than Swedes did. Despite its economic lockdown (which featured “drones in parks and fines for anyone breaking social distancing rules”), Belgium has logged nearly twice as many coronavirus-related deaths as Sweden.

Yet the Times does not consider Belgium a “cautionary tale.” The Times does not acknowledge that economic shutdowns are not silver bullets.

Interestingly, Sweden has been successful in flattening the curve, with COVID-19 deaths slowing to a crawl. One day after the Times’ hit piece, Sweden’s daily tally of new COVID-19 cases reached its lowest point since May. One day after that, Sweden’s daily death toll hovered around zero. All of this, while upholding individual liberty to a greater extent than its neighbors.

Alas, CBS News has also joined the anti-Sweden crusade, claiming the Scandinavian country is “an example of how not to handle COVID-19” in a recent headline. But, dig deeper into the story, and even CBS News admits that Sweden successfully flattened the curve. It just takes a while to get from clickbait to substance. In CBS News’ words: “With the onset of summer, Sweden’s outbreak finally slowed down. From a peak of more than 100 deaths per day, the country is now reporting daily death tolls in the low teens.”

Then the story devolved into speculation: “But in a couple months, when the short northern summer ends, people will head back indoors, where the virus could easily explode again.”

And that’s now a smoking gun? At a time when people need objective, reliable information, this kind of journalistic speculation does nothing but stoke anxiety, fear, and paranoia.

Let’s be clear: There is no overwhelming consensus on the “right” COVID-19 response. The same goes for public health experts, who often disagree about how to tackle the novel virus.

The science is not “settled,” which even the mainstream media acknowledged in the pandemic’s early days. In February, the Washington Post ran this headline: “Get a grippe, America. The flu is a much bigger threat than coronavirus, for now.” Arguing the flu “poses the bigger and more pressing peril,” WaPo health and medicine reporter Lenny Bernstein made no mention of mandatory quarantine and sweeping economic shutdowns.

By April, the Washington Post was flooding its opinion page with anti-Republican diatribes, suggesting those who are skeptical of economic lockdowns have blood on their hands. One headline read: “Republicans fight government and science.” Another urged Americans to hold Republicans accountable for “deaths caused by recklessness.”

The American people deserve better. What we don’t need is groupthink journalism, scapegoating those who dare to buck a trend and think outside the box. In our ongoing fight against the coronavirus, we need more potential solutions, not fewer. Only then can we truly figure out what worksand what doesn’t.

Luka Ladan is the President and CEO of Zenica Public Relations and a Catalyst Policy Fellow. Prior to founding Zenica, Ladan served as Communications Director at a leading public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.
Catalyst articles by Luka Ladan