Expert: Accusations of staged COVID-19 test line fodder for doubters

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It was on the air only seconds in a national report, but the use of purportedly staged images of a COVID-19 test line is creating a public relations mess for Cherry Health in Grand Rapids and CBS network news.

The segment that aired Friday on “CBS This Morning” began to make waves Wednesday when Project Veritas published accusations that some video was staged. The video in question showed a line of cars that was supposedly waiting to use Cherry Health’s drive-thru test site in downtown Grand Rapids.

Project Veritas used undercover video taken by a man who was referred to as a “clinic insider.” It appears to capture staffers talking about taking part in staging the line for the CBS News crew.

CBS News and Cherry Health both issued statements defending themselves. CBS pointed the finger at Cherry Health for the staging and the CEO of Cherry Health released a comment not taking responsibility.

Al Tompkins is a published author and nationally-known news media expert who is on staff at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. Poynter is a nonprofit organization that provides training for journalists. Tompkins spoke about the debacle while also preparing his own report for Poynter on the matter.

“This just provides more reason for people to doubt what they see on the news — and not just on CBS — but this doesn’t do anybody any good,” Tompkins told News 8. “The viewer, who already is skeptical, or maybe even cynical, now is able to point to this to say, ‘Oh wait, those lines aren’t real.’”

CBS removed the Grand Rapids video from its online report, but as of Wednesday evening did not include information about the change to the story on its website.

“When CBS found out that there was something questionable, they should address it,” Tompkins said. “They should address it forthrightly, publicly, and when they make a change they should note that there was a change and why.”

Cherry Health spoke of financial trouble in the CBS report. The organization is expected to lose millions in revenue due to the COVID-19 crisis.

“I can certainly understand the temptation for a health clinic to want to appear to have a lot of pent up demand that deserves public support, I get it,” Tompkins said. “But that’s not a reason to do this.”

Tompkins said the damage in a situation like this extends beyond Cherry Health or any one news organization.

“It adds more pressure on whether or not I believe what public officials tell me,” Tompkins said. “Anytime you start doubting the official story — the story that comes from our health officials, from our political leaders and so on — then chaos starts.”

Cherry Health officials declined to sit for an interview with News 8 Wednesday and did not respond to questions about evidence in the Project Veritas report that someone other than the CEO directed the staging for the news crew.

There have been instances in which Project Veritas’ ethics and methods have come into question but Tompkins said its no reason to ignore legitimate questions raised in the report.

“Project Veritas has lots of problems in terms of authenticity and believability. They have an agenda and part of the agenda is to raise questions about what journalists report,” Tompkins said. “In this story there is some lack of context.

“At a time like this, the believability of the information is crucial — absolutely crucial,” Tompkins continued. “I need to be able to believe that the information I’m getting from the government, from the health officials, and from journalists is true and accurate and without agenda. And if there’s any reason for me not to believe it, then I’ll just believe what’s convenient for me.”

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