Media modesty versus meltdown

What does it mean to say that a catastrophe is virtually certain - and how should the US media respond?

David Murray

Topics Politics

The American Statistical Association offered at its annual meeting a t-shirt bearing the motto: ‘Uncertainty: one thing you can always count on.’ Yet a story in the Washington Post after 11 September appeared to contradict this, reporting that ‘one intelligence official said there is a “100 percent” chance of an attack should the United States strike Afghanistan’.

This seeming guarantee of future terror poses a challenge for the news media as well as for the general public. What does it mean to say that a catastrophe is virtually certain – and how should we respond?

We should consider the nature of risk when seen in context. For instance, a scientific news organisation, based on NASA and NOAA satellite data, recently issued an urgent announcement regarding the fate of the planet. A solar explosion on 9 October hurled a full-halo coronal mass ejection towards Earth. The expanding cloud, which sped away from the Sun travelling at approximately 1000 kilometers per second, was scheduled to strike our planet’s magnetosphere very soon. Unlike projections of potential asteroid collisions, this impact was absolutely unstoppable, and 100 percent certain.

How could the media transmit this information without inducing public panic? For openers, they might note the likely consequences, such as spectacular auroras in the northern hemisphere above 50 degrees north latitude. Other than a good show of northern lights and some possible minor communications disruptions, however, that’s about it. No health or safety effects, and the planet will survive unscathed. The moral is that not everything that sounds scary necessarily is. Nor should we dramatically change our lives in the face of the unknown.

Tragically, the effects of terrorist attacks are far more lethal than are auroras, and concern about the future is a sensible reaction. The unknown is menacing, and the stakes are literally life and death. Yet nearly every study of disasters shows that the eventual toll is shaped as much by the public reaction as the event itself. Panic magnifies catastrophe, just as freezing in fear simply creates new vulnerabilities in place of the old. Anthrax is actually hard to ‘weaponise’, while those who hoard the antibiotic ciprofloxacin cause those who truly need it to suffer.

The challenge for the news media is to accommodate two messages simultaneously that seem to be at odds. The first message is that we face real danger, and that we must anticipate trouble warily. The second message is that we must be calm and reassert the power of daily life, engaging confidently with each other.

Future attacks may well be certain, but the actual statistical risk to any one of us remains remarkably small. Given ‘world enough and time’, it is also virtually certain that lethal tornadoes will strike Oklahoma, earthquakes will shatter California, and an asteroid will some day take out Easter Island. That’s the nature of probability. But we must decide whether the risk is indeed great enough for us to hide in shelters, abandon Oklahoma, or flee to Canada. Simply put, we all live in ‘tornado alley’ now – but as sturdy pioneers have always known, it’s a liveable place.

Public officials have struggled to convey these dual messages, and the media have had to overcome their natural tendencies in order to play a positive role. Uncertainty and ambiguity are difficult material for journalists, who prefer clarity, simplicity, and closure.

With remarkably few exceptions, national news media did a commendable job of reporting risk and uncertainty immediately after 11 September. Except for minor episodes such as essays in the Washington Post Style section speculating about the need for gas masks, the media have displayed commendable caution and appropriate suspension of premature judgement.

A good example comes from an interchange on CNN between Christiane Amanpour and Aaron Brown. When Amanpour challenged a military claim that ‘any attacks would avoid civilian infrastructure’, Brown reminded her, ‘This military business is an imperfect science’. Later, when CNN broadcast footage of a Taliban minister claiming that ‘we shot down a plane’, an assertion denied by the Pentagon, Brown interjected, ‘There is no way for us to verify any of this’.

Faced with a rush of partial accounts, rumours and outright misinformation, after 11 September the national news media framed their accounts with qualifiers and provided commentary to news consumers about the factual standing of the reported claims. Aaron Brown was doing more than displaying humility. He signalled viewers to remain cautious about information that might look and sound more certain than it really is. Much as every good map contains a ‘key’ guiding the reader to the meaning of its features, the news media have been offering valuable keys to their own assertions, mapping this new and uncertain terrain with care.

Unfortunately, the news media’s responsible performance soon after 11 September was blighted by their coverage of the recent episodes involving mailed anthrax. There are now multiple examples of media behaviour that stand in sharp contrast to our hopeful characterisation. Professionalism and caution are still practised, but they are harder to detect.

In all this, we should remember that we are a resilient people, living in a social system that thrives on dynamism, risk-taking, and free interchange. Misguided fear can put that system itself at risk. The dual message requiring us to be alert but calm, intensified but poised, is not really a contradiction. Instead, it reflects the wisdom first expressed by the Roman Vegetius: Si vis pacem, para bellum, ‘If you seek peace, prepare for war’.

The news media, if they adhere to this standard, will perform a crucial role, helping us fashion an alert but supple watchfulness.

David Murray is director of Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a non-profit, non-partisan research organisation in Washington, DC.

This is an edited version of a piece that appeared in the October 2001 issue of VitalSTATS.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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