WHAT'S WITH ALL THE WHITE? The New York Times coronavirus map shows large swaths of white in the central and western United States, where rural infection rates are currently at their highest. (Screen grab of New York Times map/Fair use)

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UPDATE (8:25 p.m., November 18, 2020): This evening the New York Times published a new version of their coronavirus infection-rate map that addresses the concerns raised in the column below. In a Twitter thread, Charlie Smart (@charliesmart) said the Times removed a low-population filter to make it “easier to see the spatial distribution of the virus and understand how it’s impacting your region.” Smart’s Twitter post said the Times originally did not show low-population areas “in order to avoid overstating the size of small outbreaks in the West when cases were concentrated in the Northeast. … But now, coronavirus cases have been detected in nearly every county in the United States.” The Times also revised its color coding to better show higher infection rates, which have outstripped the map’s original color scheme. Below is the Times map as of 8 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, November 18.

The new version of the New York Times coronavirus infection-rate map addresses the concerns raised in the column below. This is the map as it appeared on nytimes.com Wednesday evening, November 18.

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In the central United States, rural counties face a staggering number of new Covid-19 infections.

Last week, for example, in Crowley County, Colorado, authorities reported new positive tests that totaled 7% of the county’s entire population.

In Calhoun County, Iowa, the equivalent of 4% of the population tested positive.

In Dewey County, South Dakota, the positive rate on tests totaled 3% of the county population.

These are new infections that were reported in a single seven-day period.

Across the northern Great Plains and Intermountain region, Covid-19 numbers are going through the roof. New infections are rising so fast in the central U.S. that the Daily Yonder added a new, darker-shaded category to help capture the intensity of the accelerating pandemic.

The New York Times seems to have taken the opposite approach. Instead of emphasizing these alarmingly high rates of new infections, the Times coronavirus map made many of these counties disappear.

Look at the map at the top of the page. And compare it to this week’s Daily Yonder map, below.

You’ll notice that in the places where the rate of new infections is the highest on our map (black, blue, and red counties), the New York Times has a lot of white. It’s as if the nation’s newspaper of record has decided to erase the rural U.S. interior.

The meaning of these white areas on the Times map is not obvious. The map legend says white areas have few or no cases. So a reader would be justified in thinking that the rural West doesn’t have any problems with the coronavirus. And that’s simply not true.

What the white areas actually mean, we think, is that the Times is choosing to display no data about these sparsely populated areas. The fine print on the map says they have blocked “parts of a county” where the population density falls below 10 people per square mile. (You can find this methodological information in a link below the Times map, “About this data.”)

If you live in one of these lightly populated areas, you literally do not count in the New York Times map. Your county-wide infection rate shows as a dot of red where the population density is higher. The rest of the county is white. At the national level, these bits of red are lost in a sea of white. And valuable information about the risk of contracting the coronavirus is lost with it.

It’s an odd way to display county-level data. They are trying to show two things at once — infections and population density. And they are showing a uniform rate of infection for some counties while breaking other counties into subdivisions and showing two different rates. The truth is, the Times doesn’t know how many Covid-19 cases are occurring in those white-shaded areas. It could be none; it could be 100% of the people who live there. All the Times knows is that not many people live there. So they don’t count.

In some cases, white-shaded areas may have no residents. But that’s not generally the case. My home, Anderson County, Tennessee, has a white-shaded area on the Times map. While there aren’t a lot of folks in that part of the county, it’s not empty. When I ride my motorcycle out there, folks wave as I go by. Their kids are zoned for the same high school my kids attended. I don’t know whether any of those folks have Covid-19, and the New York Times doesn’t either.

In my county, the Times’ approach doesn’t grossly misrepresent infection data. Most of my county is red. When you pull back to the national level, you get more or less an accurate picture of how East Tennessee is doing with Covid-19 (not so good, by the way). But out west, where the population centers can be tiny compared to the rest of the county, the “white-zone method” gives a false impression that the West is doing a great job containing Covid-19.

No map is perfect. Each has flaws and can skew the story in unintended ways. But in an apparent effort to correct an overrepresentation of lightly populated rural areas, the Times has gone too far. The perception that large swaths of rural America are somehow beyond the reach of the virus is dangerous. That’s the kind of idea that makes people think they don’t need to worry about protecting themselves and their neighbors from the virus.

The Times knows Covid-19 is a problem in rural America. They’ve done some excellent reporting on the virus in rural areas. And the news staff knows about all the different ways that numbers can tell the story of the pandemic. The Times has provided an invaluable national service by collecting and distributing its Covid-19 data to readers and researchers. 

That’s why it’s all the more important that they correct the misrepresentation that the American West has nothing to worry about. There’s plenty to worry about, and then some.

Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder.