Scarves and coronavirus: CNN’s bogus fact checks

A pair of April 3, 2020 fact checks from CNN cry out for critical attention.

CNN produced two versions of the same fact check, one in video format and the other in text, where both contain flaws and one disagrees with the other. Both fact checks looked at President Trump’s April 1, 2020 claim about the effectiveness of scarves compared to masks as a means of slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Scarves and Masks on Video

Fact check reporter Daniel Dale blew the video version of CNN’s fact check by exercising free interpretation of Trump’s remarks and failing to offer viewers solid information on the topic.


Dale, appearing on CNN:

The president continues to give people medical advice that is dubious at best. In talking today about masks, he said that in many cases using a scarf can be better than using an actual FDA-approved mask because, he said, “It’s thicker.” Now there’s still more studying to be done of the effectiveness of various kinds of devices against this virus, but that advice is not what the CDC says. The CDC says that things like scarves, bandanas are last resort options for health care workers. They have not been proven effective. So if you’re wearing a scarf instead of a mask because the president told you to, please don’t.

Dale mostly fails to maintain an anchoring in the facts.

Context, Context, Context

Trump did not compare the use of scarves to “actual FDA-approved” masks. And Trump, in context, was not making a recommendation applying to health care workers. He was talking about protective gear worn by the general public, as the text version of CNN’s fact check recognizes:

Facts First: Though he was addressing what citizens should do, Trump’s claim that scarves can work better than masks is not supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance to health care workers.

CNN reported on April 30 that the Trump administration, which includes the CDC, was considering updating its guidance on masks. How then does it make sense to judge Trump’s statement using the guidance the Trump administration might update?

What was the point of noting that Trump’s comment about what citizens should do differed from the the CDC had said about what health care workers should do?

More Context

Note the question Trump answered (omitted during CNN’s fact check segment), along with the lack of any reference, implicit or otherwise, to FDA-approval of masks (source: whitehouse.gov), bold highlights shown in CNN’s video):

Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  Ebony Bowden from the New York Post.  A few hours ago, Mayor de Blasio, the mayor of New York, said that New Yorkers leaving their homes should wear masks.  They should also wear masks when they’re with other people.  Are you considering that kind of recommendation on a federal level?  And if you are, how would you prevent a rush on N95 masks?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I think they’re going to be coming out with regulations on that.  And if people want to abide by them, frankly, I don’t think you — I don’t think there’ll be mandatory, because some people don’t want to do that.  But if people wanted — as an example, on the masks, if people wanted to wear them, they can.  If people wanted to use scarves, which they have — many people have them — they can.  In many cases, the scarf is better; it’s thicker.  I mean you can — if you — depending on the material, it’s thicker.  But they can do that if they want.

Now, a recommendation is coming out.  We’ll see what that recommendation is, but —

Q    Is that a CDC recommendation, sir?

THE PRESIDENT:  But I will say this, they can pretty much decide for themselves right now.

Q    Would that be nationwide?  And can I also just ask–

THE PRESIDENT:  Nationwide.

The president, then, was talking about ways regular people, not medical professionals, could respond to state and local government guidelines on wearing masks in public. Perhaps Mr. Trump even gave consideration in his recommendation to preserving the supply of FDA-approved gear for professional healthcare workers, though we don’t find that clear in his answer.

Scarves and Masks, Text Version

As noted above, the text version of CNN’s fact check disagreed with Dale’s video segment. The text version noted Trump was talking about face coverings for everyday use by the typical person. Dale’s video segment proceeded as though under the assumption Trump was talking about first responders and/or medical professionals.

But the text version duplicated the video fact check’s error of judging Trump’s statement using CDC guidelines that were on the cusp of change.

The methodology resembles judging an NFL rule change by noting that the proposed change is against current NFL rules.

A Shifting Landscape

Recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control have shifted over time, of course. To the extent CNN’s fact checkers relied on a trusted source, they relied on the CDC, and the CDC at the time was not recommending people wear masks in public.

A key member of the White House’s coronavirus task force said Tuesday the idea of recommending broad use of masks in the US to prevent the spread of coronavirus is under “very active discussion” by the group

“The idea of getting a much more broad, community-wide use of masks outside of the health care setting is under very active discussion at the task force. The CDC group is looking at that very carefully,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on “Newsroom.”

On the other hand, other trusted sources were starting to make the case for wearing masks based on scientific suspicions about asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19.

Pro-Publica, April 2, 2020:

Not only can people be infected and experience no symptoms or very mild symptoms for the first few days, but this coincides with when the so-called viral load — the amount of virus being emitted from an infected person’s cells — may be the highest.

The Pro-Publica story links to supporting material from CNN, of all places, relying in turn on the White House and Anthony Fauci.

CNN, March 31, 2020:

A key member of the White House’s coronavirus task force said Tuesday the idea of recommending broad use of masks in the US to prevent the spread of coronavirus is under “very active discussion” by the group.

“The idea of getting a much more broad, community-wide use of masks outside of the health care setting is under very active discussion at the task force. The CDC group is looking at that very carefully,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on “Newsroom.”

Dale could have relied on CNN’s earlier reporting to see the problem with his fact check. The CDC was primed to change its guidelines based on emerging evidence. Instead of taking note of what was happening, Dale relied on the imminently obsolete CDC guidelines to fault Mr. Trump.

A Mask is a Mask is a Mask?

Was Trump wrong that a scarf could in many cases prove more effective than a mask for preventing the spread of COVID-19?

We’re not aware of any studies that would show Trump right or wrong. But the CDC’s current guidelines, the ones it was developing near the time Trump spoke, suggest Trump was probably right.

Mainstream fact checker PolitiFact found a study that might provisionally support Trump’s claim:

A study published in October 2010 tested how cloth masks and common fabrics fared when sprayed with aerosols at different speeds. All of the materials performed worse than N95 respirators. But some, such as cotton towels and scarves, were in the range of some surgical masks. The authors cautioned that fabric materials “show only marginal filtration performance against virus-size particles when sealed around the edges.”

We fault CNN’s Dale for harmfully conflating the use of professional protective equipment with surgical masks homemade or otherwise.

The N-95 Respirator

CDN guidelines note that N-95 respirators do not work properly on persons with facial hair. The necessary seal around the nose and mouth cannot form. Is a bearded person better protected by a scarf or a N-95 respirator? A bearded CNN viewer might well conclude the N-95 respirator offers better protection, based on Dale’s fact-checking.

Surgical Masks

As for surgical masks, the FDA says this:

While a surgical mask may be effective in blocking splashes and large-particle droplets, a face mask, by design, does not filter or block very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes, or certain medical procedures. Surgical masks also do not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the surface of the face mask and your face.

Do CNN’s fact checkers believe masks meeting that description would necessarily work better than scarves to prevent the spread of COVID-19? If so, we’d like to see the evidence.

The fact is there are many different kinds of face masks, including homemade versions. CNN’s fact checkers ought to have taken that into account.

We do not know how effectively each type of face covering protects against transmission of COVID-19. But we expect that Trump is likely right that thicker coverings tend to offer better protection than thinner ones.

Zebra Fact Check used Twitter to ask CNN’s fact checkers to consider issuing corrections. We will update this story if we find CNN had worked to fix its mistakes.

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