Port: Sturgis pandemic coverage has been a black eye for the media

Americans need to be able to trust what's reported by the news media. Many of them feel like they can't, and situations like the Sturgis story only cause them to dig in on those feelings.

Motorcycles and people crowd Main Street during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, on August 7, 2020. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images/TNS

MINOT, N.D. — It has been a struggle to get Americans to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.

You don't need me to tell you that resistance to guidelines like masking and social distancing has been rampant.

There are many reasons for this, but a big one is the shamefully sensationalistic way the pandemic has been reported to us for months now. Every day it's armageddon in the headlines, even as Americans look out their window and see something that's not quite so bad.

I mean, things are bad, but the heavy breathing we get from our news outlets daily prepares us to expect a glimpse of a mushroom cloud over the horizon any day now.

Reality not matching up with headlines leads the public to believe that the pandemic isn't as serious as reported. Which, in turn, is part of what drives resistance to things such as masking and lockdowns.


An unfortunate outcome because the pandemic is serious. It's hurting real people. It's killed tens of thousands. The actual story of the COVID-19 pandemic has been bad enough without journalists and editors, and producers cranking everything up to 11.

The way the news media covered the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is a case in point. It was held in South Dakota with little in the way of precautions. Few of the hundreds of thousands of attendees from across the nation wore masks. Few engaged in social distancing.

One needn't be an epidemiologist to conclude that the event would contribute significantly to the spread of COVID-19.

And it has. Recently the CDC published a report concluding that 86 people in Minnesota had contracted the virus because of Sturgis, including 51 people who attended the rally and another 35 who contracted it from attendees. Earlier reports have concluded that Sturgis contributed to more than 300 cases of COVID-19 across 12 states.

Those numbers are almost certainly low. By August, South Dakota alone was attributing 236 cases to Sturgis . The true number is likely in the thousands, nationally.

That's not good at all. Hundreds and possibly thousands of people suffered, and in some cases died, because of a motorcycle rally.

That story, on its own merits, is one worth telling.

Unfortunately, the Sturgis rally's actual impact has been overshadowed by sensational headlines touting the work of some economists in California who concluded that the rally contributed to more than a quarter-million cases of COVID-19.


It's a big number, and it made for a big headline.

The report from researchers at San Diego State University's Center for Health Economics & Policy Studies was picked up everywhere. Those expressing skepticism about the enormity of its conclusions (including this humble observer) were criticized.

The report quickly came under fire from experts — people who actually work in medicine, not economics — but their objections didn't get nearly the same level of attention.

We know now that the skeptics were right. The San Diego State report massively overstated the impact of the Sturgis rally, and in doing so, made it seem as though the rally's actual impact was less serious.

This is unfortunate because the rally's actual impact is a major news story, albeit one not quite as fantastic as the one we were told.

The Sturgis story is just one example of poor media coverage from the pandemic, but there are others, too, and they are as much a threat to our society as President Donald Trump and his dwindling following braying about fake news and stolen elections.

Americans need to be able to trust what's reported by the news media.

Many feel like they can't, and situations like the Sturgis story only cause them to dig in on those feelings.


Journalists do many, many things well. Unfortunately, self-reflection isn't one of them.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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