It’s media’s fault, not OCTA’s

IF not for the seriousness of the topic, it would be hilarious. The Philippine Daily Inquirer seems to delight in OCTA Research’s pessimistic forecasts on the course of the pandemic that it bannered several times that outfit’s dire reports.

When OCTA reported that its polls showed that Sara Duterte-Carpio and her father would be unbeatable 10 months to the May 22 elections, the paper bannered a few unthinking representatives’ resolution for the House to investigate the qualifications of the research group. They’d better be prepared to investigate Social Weather Stations, Pulse Asia and the slew of “pollsters” that appear every election season.

Haven’t these silly congressmen read the Constitution or just hear about what all democratic societies value – the principle of freedom of expression? While officially, the Constitution is addressing the state, that it cannot pass “any law abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press,” it is an injunction to everyone.

OCTA may just issue another report claiming that we will all die of Covid by the end of the month or that there’s been a major change in people’s views that its survey shows that Antonio Trillanes 4th will be our next president. Congress though would have no business at all calling for an investigation of OCTA.

The problem is media. As I have pointed out in several columns, it is media that gives value to any event, report or claim through the structure of the newspaper, in the case of print, and the lead stories and the duration of their reports in broadcast. A newspaper gives a report (or a quote by some personality) a huge value when it is used as a banner headline or put above-the-fold. There is a biological or psychological reason for this: a headline will likely be retained in the reader’s mind, even if he doesn’t read the story.

The PDI and several other newspapers have placed much value, importance and credibility to OCTA that they put many of its reports on the front page and even made them their banner stories. One even distorted OCTA’s report, headlining it as “Delta surge to kill thousands – OCTA” [my emphasis]. The actual OCTA report, however, used “may,” a verb that means a possibility, a huge difference from “to” which denotes inevitability.

If I were an editor of these newspapers, I’d put the OCTA report in the inside pages, never in the front page, as sorry to say, all broadsheets did one way or another. I would even require the reporter to get the views on the OCTA report of heath department officials or other people studying the pandemic who don’t agree with the claims of that group.

For instance, Dr. Edsel Salvaña, a member of the government’s Technical Advisory Group on Covid-19, has been questioning several OCTA reports for being “poorly designed studies.” But I have not read his criticisms in any news article on OCTA.

OCTA for chrissakes is a research group of academics, who simply want to utilize their academic skills to bear on the interpretation of data on the pandemic, which to the credit of the health department has been accessible in great levels of detail. They should be praised, not “investigated.” The OCTA reports that I’ve read were well-argued and explained, with the data and their source disclosed.

OCTA’s pessimistic reports have counterbalanced the Inter-Agency Task Force’s optimism on the course of the pandemic, which is to be expected because it is they who have to balance the need for lockdowns and the imperative for economic activity.

I’m surprised that the United States, with its huge corps of scientists, didn’t have the equivalent of an OCTA, which could have countered Trump’s deadly optimism or the passivity of his Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so that hundreds of thousands of American lives could have been spared.

Look, Covid-19 has proven to be such a powerful virus, and no scientist really knows how it would mutate and survive. Better we err on the side of caution.

If OCTA’s pessimistic reports that turned out to be wrong had gained traction, not only the press should be faulted but the health department’s experts who should have continuously challenged that research group’s claims. These silly congressmen’s move to investigate it is the equivalent of shooting the messenger bearing bad news.

All freedoms of course are not absolute.

It is not a press freedom case when rappler.com, funded by US entities and run by an American citizen, invented false figures on the number of casualties in the government’s war against illegal drug, refused to take down that report even when it was proven false, spreads the lies of other anti-government personalities that casualties had reached 27,800, and claims that a legitimate businessman “close to Chief Justice Renato Corona” is a murderer and involved in organized crime.

Postscript

There are three things that government should drop in its efforts to contain the pandemic.

First, the required universal use of face shields. I haven’t seen any scientific study saying this is as important as wearing face masks. These do not significantly reduce the risk of contracting Covid. They are an added expense to the poor and such a huge inconvenience.

Second, the “contact tracing” procedure in malls and stores, where you are asked to write your name, address, telephone number, date and time, and your body temperature just taken by the security guard is useless. It escapes me how this would help contact tracing. If you get Covid, they’ll take out the boxes containing those small slips of paper to contact each and everyone who went to the mall? It might even help spread the virus, as people use only one ball pen to input their data.

And third, allow children, even toddlers, to go out. I can’t imagine how children living in small apartments and houses have survived these past months. Statistics show they’re the least vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus. Why are they the ones who have been in effect quarantined these past two years? At least allow them to go to parks and to restaurants that are not enclosed.

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