Context is everything, as was demonstrated this week by ABC News and the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky.
Walensky suffered a nasty case of backlash after ABC’s “Good Morning America” aired an edited clip of her interview on Friday, discussing the pandemic and the fast-spreading omicron variant.
In the clip, host Cecilia Vega referred vaguely to “encouraging headlines” and a new study, then asked the CDC director: “Is it time to start rethinking how we’re living with this virus – that it’s potentially here to stay?”
Walensky appeared to cheerfully reply that those dying of covid-19 were mostly people with preexisting medical problems: “The overwhelming number of deaths – over 75 percent – occurred in people who had at least four comorbidites. So really, these are people who were unwell to begin with. And yes: really encouraging news in the context of omicron.”
Outrage followed. Many deemed the CDC director callous, prompting a hashtag, #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy. People opposed to mask and vaccine mandates used the quote to justify a raft of baseless claims, such as that mandates are ineffective at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, or that pandemic death tolls have been inflated by people dying from other causes. By Monday, the Republican National Committee was sharing the clip on its “War Room” channel on YouTube.
But it turns out that ABC’s editing distorted what Walensky really said.
This week ABC replaced its clips online with a longer, unedited version of Walensky’s interview. In that one, the CDC director prefaces her reply to Vega by touting “a really important study” of 1.2 million vaccinated people, which found that only a minuscule fraction of them – 0.003% – died of covid-19. Of the small number who did die, she noted, most of them had underlying health conditions.
That was the “encouraging news” Walensky was referring to: that vaccinations protect the vast majority of people. ABC’s original cuts made it sound as if the CDC director was happy that most deaths were occurring among people who were in poor health anyway.
Walensky and CDC officials spent several days trying to undo the damage after Friday’s broadcast.
“We must protect people with comorbidities from severe #COVID19, the CDC director tweeted on Sunday. “I went into medicine – HIV specifically – and public health to protect our most at-risk.”
After CDC officials obtained a full version of the interview and complained to ABC this week, the network took down the misleading clips and post the fuller version with a note: “This video clip has been updated to include an extended version. . . . A shorter version edited for time was broadcast on Friday, January 7.”
ABC spokesman Van Scott declined further comment on Wednesday.
News organizations regularly edit interviews to fit time and space constraints, but the process can be fraught. Improper editing can distort, confuse or even present the opposite of what an interview subject said or intended to say. The Society for Professional Journalists, in its code of ethics, cautions news organizations to “provide context.” It states, “Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.”
Conservative politicians and media figures, including Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, criticized ABC in August for the way it edited anchor George Stephanopoulos’s interview with President Joe Biden. The broadcast portion of the interview cut several gaffes made by Biden, such as that his late son Beau had served in Afghanistan (he had actually served in Iraq, a mistake Biden quickly corrected), prompting claims that ABC was attempting to boost Biden’s image. The network posted a full transcript of the interview online.