Monday, March 14, 2011

The 24/7 News Cycle in Disasters

I have come to the conclusion that it is no more useful than the old system. We don't have a public service source with one set of properly verified news and information, a place we could all turn to to find the latest information and advice.

Instead, we have hundreds, thousands of different news-makers, all scraping the same minimal information for insights and text. As I followed the news on Japan over the weekend, it was incredibly hard not to get confused over how many reactor buildings had exploded, how many were at risk of partial core meltdown, and what all this might mean.

Part of the problem in this case is the naming of the reactors. Explosions at reactor Number 3 get confused with "the third reactor exploding." But mostly this is caused by the need to put something out there all the time, even though no new evidence has appeared. Thus, for a period of about eight hours, I read that yet another reactor building had exploded when it was still really the same second building.

This wouldn't perhaps be as confusing if I stuck to only one source of news. But I kept surfing while trying to find something more reliable on the various types of meltdowns and their probabilities and consequences, until I realized that nobody knows what will happen, given the rare quality of these events. All the assertions the experts make are subjective probabilities, not objective probabilities, because we don't have the latter. This is untested ground. The Three Mile Island and Chernobyl catastrophies were not the same as this one and the information they can offer to us is only partial.

A much less worrisome but still annoying aspect of the 24/7 news cycle is the need to juxtapose human interest stories with horrible numbers about the dead. To have empathy is important, and human interest stories trigger it more easily. But when news keep coming every few minutes, the human interest stories about how the furniture moved or someone got stranded on a train simply don't fit together with the next information of a thousand bodies found on a beach. The former trivializes the latter.

I'm not blaming those who put together the live blogs or write the articles. But if we want 24/7 coverage of catastrophies, we are going to get raw coverage, clips put together with minimal explanations.

My thoughts are with the people of Japan.