upennstatesman

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent oped from The UPenn Statesman used poor comparisons to the common cold. The responsibility to accurately report on the science has been failed by both student and professional journalism.

At such a critical time — when it feels like the whole world is ending — student journalists serve a crucial role in delivering understandable science information for thousands of concerned students. Unfortunately, some publications haven't taken as much care as they should these past few days.

The UPenn Statesman, a student publication from the University of Pennsylvania, recently put out an op-ed titled, "Penn stole our senior year over the common cold," by contributor Dominic Gregorio. The article, which mostly consists of worshipping President Trump along with sprinkled-in sexist comments about female university administrators, complains about the severe measures put in place by UPenn to combat the spread of COVID-19.

"I wish the economy and the academy were not so easily incapacitated by the common cold," Gregorio whines, "I wish President Gutmann had heard the COVID-19 mortality rates in the U.S. were just above 0.1[%], very similar to the seasonal flu, and acted like it."

I could talk about how this piece reflects spoiled entitlement about a trivial event when millions of Americans are expected to die from this pandemic, as based on predictions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, there already exists an amazing response from a former Statesman editor-in-chief explaining exactly why Gregorio's argument fails, so I won't aim to repeat his points here.

Needless to say, COVID-19 is far more contagious and deadly than the flu or the common cold. A recent ProPublica article detailed how young people can be left gasping for air after contracting the disease. Outside of just the health concerns, the U.S. economy might face an unprecedented 30% unemployment rate and 50% drop in GDP, according to St. Louis Fed President James Bullard.

Instead of accurately describing these dangers, Gregorio's article took the ignorant route by comparing this disease to "the seasonal flu" when nobody knows if COVID-19 even is seasonal. People with COVID-19 are getting their lungs crippled after recovery; this is not something to treat in jest.

We're not getting accurate information from our fellow students out of sheer partisanship, and this blasé attitude toward truthfulness is going to kill people who disregard government orders to stay inside by thinking this plague is merely a cold.

The article still hasn't been issued a correction (or better yet, a retraction). Gregorio issued an open letter addressing personal attacks from online comments and tried to play off the original article as "irony," which it very clearly wasn't.

It should be noted that The Statesman is not the predominant independent student newspaper on UPenn's campus; that would be the centuries-old Daily Pennsylvanian. Rather, it's a politically-charged, far-right publication with a complete aversion to science.

For example, The Statesman has rejected or has been willfully misleading regarding the scientific consensus surrounding man-made climate change in several articles. One glowing piece praises the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), a climate change denialist group that's received funding in the past from fossil fuel companies, according to a blog page by the environmentalist website DeSmog.

Coincidentally, both CFACT and the Collegiate Network (a supporter of The Statesman) have been funded by massive conservative groups like the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Bradley Foundation.

It's not surprising that The Statesman would be just as scientifically illiterate with COVID-19 as it has been with climate change, it's just disappointing. Gregorio's piece follows a similar trend of conservative outlets like Fox News failing to take this pandemic seriously, instead framing the concerns as an attack on the president or using it as an opportunity for racist pot-shots.

To be clear, COVID-19 disinformation is far from just a problem in student journalism or conservative-led media; it is an issue of non-scientists relaying sensitive information. NBC's Chuck Todd downplayed the idea that COVID-19 "only" had a two percent fatality rate, and while that figure might be lower than Todd suggested a few weeks ago, it still means sky-high hospitalizations and deaths. Kate Aronoff of The New Republic tweeted out on Sunday that presidential candidate Joe Biden might have COVID-19 without any evidence or links, though she still got around a thousand retweets.

Now, more than ever, it's important that students subscribe to their local outlets to keep up to date with reliable information about how this global pandemic is affecting their businesses, schools and general livelihood. Student journalists also need to be attentive to what they're reporting and how their words might impact their fellow students' behavior.

These times are ripe for confusion, and we have to stomp it out before that confusion manifests into more COVID-19 infections.

This is the opinion of Cristobal Spielmann, a sophomore environmental science major from Brentwood, Tennessee. Tweet comments @LALoyolan or email astory@theloyolan.com.

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