July 28, 2022

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Two new, and now peer-reviewed, studies published in the journal Science conclude that an animal market in Wuhan, China, is the most likely source of the virus that sparked the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of course, you know there has been a lot of debate over where the virus began to spread and whether it was released from a bio-lab near the market. But the researchers make strong claims that all evidence points to the animal market.

Here is part of the official summary:

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, was identified as a likely source of cases in early reports but later this conclusion became controversial. We show the earliest known COVID-19 cases from December 2019, including those without reported direct links, were geographically centered on this market. We report that live SARS-CoV-2 susceptible mammals were sold at the market in late 2019 and, within the market, SARS-CoV-2-positive environmental samples were spatially associated with vendors selling live mammals. While there is insufficient evidence to define upstream events, and exact circumstances remain obscure, our analyses indicate that the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 occurred via the live wildlife trade in China and show that the Huanan market was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study could not pinpoint which species of animal might have been the host of the virus but came up with some suspects that researchers believe were sold around the time the virus broke out into the human population. Suspects include the racoon dog and amur hedgehog. The researchers also considered badgers and foxes known to be sold at the market. But the study does not mention bats, which has been commonly blamed for the virus.

The researchers also say if the virus had not come from the live animal market, then in a city of 11 million people, the outbreak would have been more likely to show up in a range of other places around the city including senior care centers, shopping centers, workplaces and universities. But despite all of those places having more significant people passing through them, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market seems to be the epicenter.

This does not end the debate but does add some scientific structure to the investigation.

Why car thieves target Kias

Nationwide, police departments are noticing car thefts are rising. A lot of the thefts involve young people who brag online about stealing cars, and a lot of the thefts involve Kias and Hyundais. 

The Star Tribune in Minneapolis reported:

A surge of Kia and Hyundai vehicle thefts has struck St. Paul, vexing residents, police and car manufacturers. But the problem is national, and officials say they have few means to fix it.

Police say this wave of thefts is part of a national trend that grew through social media videos. The videos show thieves using a manufacturer flaw in older Kias and Hyundais that allows them to bypass the ignition.

(Star Tribune)

Motor Biscuit, an auto enthusiasts’ website, says:

In fact, there are some cities that are seeing virtually half of their car thefts involving one or the other Korean car manufacturer. There are now several YouTube videos showing other thieves how to use USB chargers to start Kia and Hyundai engines.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, 45 percent of stolen cars in June were either a Kia or Hyundai, according to MLive. In St. Paul, Minnesota, it accounts for a quarter of car thefts so far this year. And compared to last year, in St. Louis, Missouri, police have seen a 254 percent rise in Kia thefts. For Hyundai, it is slightly lower at 222 percent.

Automotive News says it is seeing similar numbers out of Memphis, Tennessee, Cincinnati, and Columbus, Ohio. Authorities are blaming the two carmakers for not having engine immobilizers on key fobs. This is pretty much standard theft protection from most other manufacturers. To start the car’s engine the driver needs a digitally coded key fob. All of Hyundai’s and Kia’s latest models have the technology.

The Milwaukee City Council even sent a letter to Kia and Hyundai blaming them for the rise in car thefts. “We write to ask that KIA Motors America Inc., make fundamental changes to the mechanisms used to secure its vehicles,” one letter said. “We do this not only in the interest of protecting the property and persons of those who purchase your vehicles, but to try and do something to lessen the drain on police and other resources that seems directly attributable to certain defects in their locking system.”

I have seen similar stories in Florida. Fox 35 in Orlando reported:

Police and sheriff’s departments across the country and in Florida are warning drivers about an increase in thefts of KIA and Hyundai vehicles.

According to those agencies, some have said older models of those vehicles are easier for people to steal because they do not have an engine immobilizer, an electronic security feature that – as its name suggests – prevents the engine from starting, and that people have posted videos on social media with instructions on how to steal a vehicle.

Cars from Kia (2012 and newer) and Hyundai (2015 and newer) are especially susceptible to theft,” the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said in a tweet earlier this week, linking to a news article about an alleged vehicle theft in Atlanta.

“Unfortunately, it seems like when people put out on social media, whether through TikTok, YouTube or any other channel, that something is easy to steal, criminals try to steal it,” the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

I am seeing similar stories about a rise in car thefts in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

The Cincinnati Enquirer reported:

Over 11,500 vehicles were stolen across the Milwaukee area in 2021. The trend doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.

In 2021, Milwaukee experienced a wave of car thefts officials attributed to a gang called the “Kia Boys.”

I am teaching in Columbus, Ohio, in the first part of this week and saw a story on the local news about the astonishingly high car theft rate in this town.

WSYX-TV reported:

Since the start of the year, CPD said 5,354 cars had been reported stolen or attempted to be stolen. Compare that number to the same time last year, when 2,984 vehicles were reported stolen or attempted stolen to CPD.

NBC 4 Columbus said, “45 percent of the cars stolen are Kias and Hyundais.” Columbus Police Commander Duane Mabry told NBC 4, “We’re seeing groups of kids four and five deep in a car, that they’re going around in a stolen car to steal a series of other cars or they’re stealing a bunch of cars and dumping a stolen car.”

The most stolen vehicle: pickup trucks

As hot as the Kias and Hyundais are for car thieves, pickup trucks always seem to top the most stolen vehicle list in the United States. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) just released its list of most stolen vehicles in 2021 and once again pickup trucks by GM and Ford topped the list.

GM Authority reported:

NICB noted that nearly one million vehicles in total were stolen last year, and that 14 percent of those vehicles were Chevy, Ford, or GMC full-size pickups.

NICB President and CEO, David Glawe, said that the uptick in vehicle thefts is likely a result of ongoing automotive supply issues and an increase in demand for used vehicles. “Crime is a business, and business is good,” said Glawe. “Used car values are at historical highs. We have seen a nearly 35-percent increase in used car values over the last two years due to supply chain issues and inflation. Stolen cars can be shipped overseas and resold or broken down for valuable used car parts here in the U.S.”

Motor Biscuit says:

Every year it seems as though the top 2 spots flip-flop. For 2021, the most stolen car was a Chevrolet Silverado. With more than 48,000 models stolen, this truck edged the second spot by just a few hundred thefts. Furthermore, the most stolen Chevrolet Silverado was the 2004 model year.

One big reason this was the most stolen car for 2021 was the older security technology in this truck. Automakers are constantly working hard to offer more advanced security features.

(Motor Biscuit)

Critically important farm labor bill will die without action soon

You probably have never heard of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, but it is critically important to the agriculture world that is struggling for workers. And this bill is important for everyone else because it is seen by many as the best chance to get a handle on rising food prices.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill that would create a way for undocumented farmworkers to work legally and would expand the H-2A program to allow workers to stay on year-round visas. Anything that has to do with migration and migrant workers is as political as it is about economics. This matter has lingered unresolved for a decade.

Progressive Farmer summarized the bill this way:

The bill would give “blue cards” to agricultural workers who have worked at least 180 days on farms over the past two years. They would become eligible for five-year renewable visas that would require working at least 100 days each year in agriculture. Those workers would later on be given the option to earn permanent legal status but must have at least 14 years of work history in agriculture before they can apply.

Politico reports:

According to a source familiar with the negotiations, a deal has been reached on the bill’s wage provisions and the senators are close to agreement on the cap for year-round H-2A visas. But the expansion of worker rights — particularly the extension of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act to cover H-2A workers — continues to be a sticking point.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, which opposes the expansion of MSPA rights to H-2A workers, caps on the number of year-round workers and increased wages — looms large over the talks. If the Senate bill includes those provisions, the Farm Bureau’s opposition could deter many Republicans from supporting it. The Farm Bureau opposed the bill as it was passed in the House.

Timing is tight. The month-long August recess is a couple of weeks away and if this bill is not passed before the break, the chances of it passing right before the midterm elections are considered to be slim.

H.R. 1603 has the support of more than 300 agriculture associations, labor organizations, immigrants’ rights advocates, and business interest groups. (See the list, which includes groups from all over the country.)

The American Farm Bureau Federation opposes it, arguing the bill would lead to higher wages for farmworkers and make farm employers legally vulnerable.

Heritage Action for America has opposed the legislation for some time because it would allow current agricultural workers to stay in the United States even if they had arrived without legal papers.

Here is a two-page summary of the bill.

Here is a section-by-section summary of the bill.

Journalists, this would be an excellent issue to quiz midterm candidates about, especially in those races where immigration, lack of workers and inflation are key talking points.

Be thoughtful about photos and videos of people getting monkeypox vaccinations

CNN’s Sara Ashley O’Brien raised an interesting point in the CNN Reliable Sources newsletter this week about the need for journalists to be thoughtful and sensitive about the images they publish and air of “men queuing up for the (monkeypox) vaccine.” The vaccine has become most widely administered among gay men who currently represent the overwhelming majority of monkeypox cases.

O’Brien notes that while journalists have the right to capture and use images of people in a public place, this is one of those times when we should balance our rights with our responsibilities. O’Brien urges journalists to think about how such images could affect people’s lives. In short, ask the people in those lines for permission to use their image or use your photographic and editing skills to safeguard their privacy.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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