The Associated Press recently ran an article titled “AP FACT CHECK: Trump claims rising suicides if US stays shut.” The title seems sort of intuitive. With businesses shut down and people out of work, the unemployed could reasonably feel despair, hopelessness, and consider taking their own lives. The lede of the AP article, however, asserted: “President Donald Trump is making a baseless claim of surging suicides if the U.S. economy remains mostly shut due to the spread of the coronavirus. There’s no evidence that suicides will rise dramatically, let alone surpass potential coronavirus deaths.”
Well, let’s take a look at what the president actually said.
AP quoted comments President Trump made during the Fox News townhall on March 24, 2020. It is necessary to look at two specific areas where the AP asserted that President Trump was making baseless claims – “making a bad comparison” and that there was no evidence the “suicide rate will rise dramatically.”
AP Quotes President Trump: “I mean, we have never closed the country before, and we had some pretty bad flus, and we have had some pretty bad viruses.”
AP Assertion: “He’s making a bad comparison. The new coronavirus is not the same as the annual flu, because it’s a disease that hadn’t been seen before in humans.”
Actual President Trump Quotation: “We’ve had flus before. We’ve had viruses before. So, this is something new.”
Actual President Trump Quotation Later in the Interview: “We’ve had horrible flus. I mean, think of it, we average 36,000 people, death, deaths. I’m not talking about cases. I’m talking about deaths – thirty-six thousand deaths a year. People die from the flu. But we’ve never closed down the country for the flu.”
This statement was prompted by the president’s advisers telling him that the country would have to be shut down; he was reacting to that. He was not saying that the COVID-19 is just like other viral outbreaks in terms of characteristics or numbers of people infected. Trump was comparing how the U.S. responded by pointing out that the country did not shut down. The president does understand that the Wuhan Coronavirus is “new.” AP introduced inaccuracy when the writers conflated two quotations, losing precision and making the single quotation wrong. Additionally, they did not put President Trump’s statements in context and created an inaccurate perception for the reader of what the president said.
AP Quotes President Trump: “You’re going to have suicides by the thousands.”
AP Assertion: “There is no evidence that the suicides will rise dramatically if nationwide social-distancing guidelines that have closed many businesses and are expected to trigger a spike in unemployment stay in place.”
Actual President Trump Quotation Later in the Interview: “Look, you are going to lose a number of people to the flu. But you are going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression. You are going to lose people. You are going to have suicides by the thousands.”
Again, the AP writers did not take the statement in context. Their assertion that President Trump is talking about social-distancing guidelines staying in place and the resulting closing of businesses causing suicides is not true. He is talking about the severe consequences of a “massive recession or depression.” A quick check of the statistics for suicides per capita shows that President Trump is likely right. The average between 1920-1928 was 12.1 per 100,000 people, and the year the Great Depression started, 1929, the suicide rate was 18.1 – a full 50% increase in that one year. The decade between 1930-1940 saw an average of 15.4 per 100,000. Considering that the population of the U.S. in 1930 was 123,112,522, we’re talking thousands.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC), in a 2011 study released by the American Journal of Public Health, found a direct correlation between the rise and fall of the economy and the suicide rate. The acting director of the CDC’s Injury Center’s Division of Violence Prevention, Dr. James Mercy, Ph.D., explained: “Knowing suicides increased during economic recessions and fell during expansions underscores the need for additional suicide prevention measures when the economy weakens …”
Regardless of how one feels about the AP’s integrity, the statistic and the CDC report look suspiciously like evidence in favor of Trump’s argument.
Looking into the truth about what the president said during his Fox News townhall wasn’t hard – and any fact checkers should have done this before running an article. There is good news, though: The townhall interview had 4.4 million viewers – likely far more than read the “AP FACT CHECK.”
[The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation].
Read more from Dave Patterson.
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