Editorial: Inconsistent, opaque messaging by Wolf admin undermines journalism, increases public health risk

5 min read397 views and 623 shares Posted May 8, 2020

As predicted, America today is a house divided.

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I know you feel it from your feeds. A radiation of distrust, anger, unease.

It’s not our job to tell you what to think. LebTown exists to report the facts. And as I promised earlier this year, when our ability to collect and report the facts is impeded, we will let you know that.

We remain in virtually the same situation as when LebTown published our March 27 editorial urging Governor Tom Wolf to release information about the “waiver list.” We argued that by Gov. Wolf deciding to withhold information about a process that was inconsistent and apparently unenforced, he would effect reporting which would stoke economic anxiety and skepticism about the official response.

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We’ve seen this in spades. Plus a litany of further missteps and messaging inconsistencies by the administration.

LebTown is in the business of trust. It’s the product we make, it’s the reason we exist. Like excellence, trust is a habit – what we repeatedly do. It matters at every level of the organization. Ask LebTown staff and they’ll tell you that nearly the only thing that can disturb my equilibrium is becoming aware of a screwup we made. Like any news organization, of course we make mistakes. From typos on up, we treat these errors with the utmost respect. Not only must we correct them, but we must be candid with our readers about what happened and take meaningful steps to prevent them from occurring again.

So, I get it when Lebanon County’s State Rep. Russ Diamond argues that the Department of Health has no credibility at this point. As mentioned, I don’t see it as my job to opine directly, any more than I would opine on Diamond’s credibility or any other person’s. But I am a servant to facts. Driven by the same urge as Hemingway: Write one true sentence. Rinse & Repeat.

This issue came into focus this week with Diamond’s widelynoticed decision to shop for groceries without wearing a mask. Diamond asserted on his Facebook profile that the Department of Health had “quietly walked (the April 15 mask order) back from mandatory to encouraged without telling anyone.”

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Diamond repeated this claim in a post Thursday.

I had already reached out to the Department of Health asking if that was true – they said the assertion was incorrect. I asked for some additional language about how the order was meant to be interpreted and later shared this with Diamond on Facebook. Faced with the clear statement that the DOH had denied the assertion and asked for advice on how we could prove this secret walkback if true, Diamond said, “This is a preponderance of the evidence issue. Compare to other inconsistencies and walkbacks.”

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We find ourselves in a dangerous situation. One where the inconsistent and opaque messaging by the Wolf administration has quite literally led us to a point where we can’t agree on facts. It is not clear to me what, if anything, would cause Diamond to “believe” that the DOH has not walked back the order. He, like many others across the state, no longer takes the Wolf administration at its word. As discussed in the comments on Diamond’s post, there’s a fair criticism to be made about simple content issues, like conflicting verbiage across different pages and platforms. Not to mention true legal gray areas such as around the wearing of masks when it comes to medical exclusions and voting rights. These inconsistencies, minor though they may seem, happen to be occurring at a time of extreme emotional duress and therefore can more easily prime the public to latch onto misinformation and conspiracy theories as plausible explanations for a situation that seems confusing and all-encompassing.

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it,” the Irish writer Jonathan Swift once quipped. It’s time for the administration to take responsibility for its role in creating fertile ground for fake news. Pennsylvania Republicans have a major role in this as well, all things being political, and media literacy clearly remains a major obstacle to healthy civic discourse, but the fact is that Wolf has singular power at present by way of the emergency declaration. His team is calling the shots at the state level and there are several major areas where the Wolf administration has made decisions that have had deleterious effects on journalists’ ability to provide readers with a clear, unbiased, and fact-based summation of events.

There have also been numerous cases where the administration’s messaging on its policies has been politicized and unnecessarily confrontational. Review this snippet from the press conference on Monday, April 20.

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Not only is that statement incorrect, but it’s taunting to business owners across the commonwealth. Life and law are complicated, and it’s risky to reduce responses to the size of a soundbite.

Consider also the recent decision to extend the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures until July. The Wolf administration could be following the lead of Philadelphia’s City Council in crafting a bill that protects vulnerable landlords and tenants while also being clear-eyed and proactive about the abuse potential. Instead Wolf’s messaging is being interpreted by landlords as a sign that he’s willing to see a deluge of evictions come this fall, slowing down an already backed up justice system. More proactive, disciplined, and targeted messaging could reduce tensions here.

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And perhaps most importantly right now, there’s confusion around what the plan to reopen is.

The state didn’t have a contact tracing plan until reporters pushed the administration on what it is. Contact tracing has not been properly explained to the public in a mass media sense – local media are doing our part but many members of the public have expressed skepticism or outright antagonism about the idea, despite it being a key prong to the CDC’s COVID-19 mitigation plan. Or the much-touted “50 cases over 14 days per 100,000 residents” metric that was set as a reasonable goal post for reopening… Until DOH Secretary of Health Rachel Levine backtracked on that, saying on April 27, “I don’t want to emphasize the metric too much. It was just something to put down to have quantitative data to look at.” (To the best of our knowledge, Levine was not precise with her language in making this statement and the metric does indeed remain a key piece of decision-making logic, as a version of it is incorporated in the Carnegie Mellon “risk-based decision support tool” that the administration said it’s using internally.)

In aggregate, this pattern of inconsistency is undermining our ability to provide reliable journalism to our readers, and ultimately the risk is exacerbating the public health crisis (as well as inflaming political tensions and making Facebook something like the eighth circle). The Wolf administration must become more transparent, more consistent, and more proactive in its messaging. (And if the administration believes this is an issue with public awareness/education, we know dozens of other local publishers like LebTown across the state who would gladly help with a marketing campaign.)

By the way, here’s the rest of that Swift quote. Please take heed.

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“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect.”

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