By Christopher Harper
While taking an online course created by the University of Texas and the Knight Foundation, I hoped to learn more about reporting on the Covid-19 crisis.
Instead, I got an informative look at the creation and propagation of media bias throughout the world.
Had the class involved only a few students, the result would have been a small group of individuals subjected to an anti-Trump bias. Instead, nearly 10,000 people from countries throughout the world received examples of how NOT to report.
The instructor, science reporter Maryn McKenna, barely cloaked her bias throughout the four-week class.
In the first week, the class got the bias of writer Sonia Shah.
“[W]hat really surprised me about the way this pandemic is unfolding is the huge political failure in the United States. I think that really was not expected. You know, I think we’ve all been kind of confused about the U.S. response and, you know, the political moment we’re in where we have all of these right-wing populist leaders around the world,” she opined.
That would run counter to recent studies that found the U.S. lockdown may have saved 60 million Americans from contracting the disease.
In the second week, the class read one of the instructor’s articles in The New Republic, an avowedly leftist publication, entitled “The Plague Years: How the rise of right-wing nationalism is jeopardizing the world’s health.”
“Nationalism, xenophobia, the new right-wing populism in Europe and the United States, are raising our risk,” said Ronald Klain, who was the White House Ebola response coordinator for President Barack Obama, told her.
The article is a classic example of confirmation bias, where she sought out sources to confirm her beliefs.
In the third week, the instructor blamed President Trump and Fox News for saying hydroxychloroquine might help people to recover from Covid-19. Her criticism was based on a study that has been subsequently found to have had numerous errors. See https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/health/coronavirus-hydroxychloroquine.html
McKenna also highlighted an obvious piece of propaganda from a student from China:
“China’s President Xi Jinping…pledged to make any potential vaccine developed by China a ‘global public good’ once it was put into use. This move would be China’s contribution to achieving accessibility and affordability of a vaccine in developing countries as well.”
Moreover, the instructor makes a particular point to forecast that it would take 10 to 15 years to discover a vaccine.
Then the coup de grace in the final week. In rapid succession, the instructor interviewed the head of the CDC under Obama, who criticized the current U.S. policies. But, ahem, she failed to ask him about Obama’s and his failures during the H1N1 pandemic.
Then, you can’t make this stuff up, came fiction writer Annalee Newitz.
“We’re seeing our political institutions become more unstable. We’re seeing environmental problems exacerbated as regulations over environmental waste. We’re seeing more problems around climate change because environmental regulations are being relaxed during these difficult times. … We’re facing starvation in California, even though we have plenty of food, but lots of people are now undernourished and malnourished and aren’t able to eat,” Newitz told the instructor, who didn’t question this nonsense.
I repeatedly tried to contact the instructor, who apparently ignored my emails.
One of the organizers, University of Texas professor Rosental Alves, responded to my complaints.
Alves said: “This is the only complaint I have received from anyone among the nearly 9,000 people registered in this MOOC. It’s also the first time I’ve received a political bias complaint since I started our distance learning program for journalists 17 years ago. I will look into it.”
I’ve heard nothing more.
I declined my certificate of completion of the class on reporting about Covid-19. Instead, I might ask for a certificate in watching media bias unfold to nearly 10,000 people, who, unlike me, may have limited backgrounds in assessing how the media can suborn the truth and propagate the false.