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Sounding the Alarm
by Gregory J. Robb


The mass media are alarmist. I know. I have worked in the news business for ten years. For instance:

A new report shows that more Canadians now live above the poverty line than ever before. But a statistic also shows that over one-third more of the 21 residents of Kitkabula feel most sad on Wednesday afternoons. I might have begun my newscast with: "A new report shows that one-third more Canadians suffer from mid-week depression." Of course, there is so much more (or less) which would follow this fictitious story's headline. But a headline's universality can plunge writers into their imaginations just as media headlines captivate "hook" readers. And writers who objectify their fiction jump-start their imaginations and harm no one.

Numbers

Statistics are dull until we derive meaning from their numerical values. For instance:

A police report reveals that crime increased 3.6% in the city last year. This can be used in two ways: first, 3.6 seems a very small number on a scale of 1 to 100; the police may use this angle to argue that they are effectively reducing crime. If the 3.6% increases the number of committed crimes to 3,689, the press can legitimately say, "Despite a minor reduction in crime last year, thousands of city residents continue to be victimized." There was a minor reduction (you just glanced by it) and since more than one thousand were victimized, the writer can use "thousands".

Loaded Questions

Mass media can veil the response "No comment" with enough mystery to heighten interest. For instance:

A missing person's corpse washes up on a river bank but police officers cannot release the person's identity until next of kin are notified; the cause of death cannot be released until autopsy results are in. But while the media waits to clear these hurdles, they must run the story since (sadly) any death makes news.

One standard method of heating up the story is to carefully suggest bizarre possibilities. In these cases, press members routinely ask police: "Are you ruling out foul play?" The policeman's equally routine answer, "No. We cannot rule anything out," gives the press license to arouse audience suspicion. Reporters are free to imagine a cloaked, sex-crazed fanatic terrorizing innocent victims! Homicide detectives, conversely, cannot initially rule out or ignore any information that could better inform their investigation.

The press can report the few facts, though, and conclude with "Police are not ruling out foul play" because they are telling the audience what they know.

The Enormity of It All

Natural disasters provide media with the opportunity to overwhelm their audience with the enormity of a story. One almost believes that victims of a typhoon, famine, drought, or a tornado will never return to a normal life. 1994's North American forest fires provide a stellar example.

The western sections of both Canada and the United States suffered from one of their worst summer fire seasons ever--at least according to the primary numbers given on television newscasts. Hundreds of thousands of hectares burned and we groused at pictures of haze and ash falling upon towns far removed from the scenes of disaster.

But two elements of the story contradict the "picture" witnessed by viewers. In British Columbia (Canada), there were more fires than at any time in history--but those flames burned far less land. Yes, there were over 22,000 lightning strikes in one early August night across the province. But the only basis for media claims that "it will only get worse before it gets better" was that hot, dry weather was forecast. Wetter conditions prevailed within the week.

Secondly, the fires in Washington State (U.S.A.) burned four times as much land with more dire consequences to residents. Military troops were flown in from Texas to fight the blazes, and those flames spread across several states. The fight was longer and more difficult for all concerned.

Coverage was exaggerated at best, misleading at worst. Understandably, local news reported the B.C. fires first--a situation of more immediate concern to Canadians. The two stories, however, were initially paralleled in newscasts. When the fire hazard in British Columbia subsided, local news began to report the United States disaster as an international headline, something taking place almost a world away. We had previously felt the heat of the flames at our front doors. Two stories got equal coverage when the threat was high. Remove the threat, and the balance of those stories disappeared.

Oddly enough, that summer also required that Vancouver media report some disasters of its own.

Let me paint the picture. Two competing local television stations experienced flooded news studios within three weeks of each other. I was present for one--seated at a robotic camera operations desk whose live wires (running beneath the workstation) were under an inch-and-a-half of water. A ruptured line in our sprinkler room spewed at a pressure of 1500 pounds per square inch. By the time maintenance and fire officials arrived, the whole studio set and our master computer room was under water. It took crews about ten hours to clean up the set before the next day's shows went on the air.

Only the threat of explosion caused us to cancel a program. For the record, I was directed to swing one of the cameras around to shoot our submerged studio floor as the anchor informed viewers that electrical Armageddon might occur at any time. No sports show. All staff and management were concerned for our safety. But only when the threat became monumental did the presses stop to mop up. We had become, through our work, desensitized to the threat which we faced. Hey, if just one of those 22,000 lightning strikes hits the right spot at the right time...just imagine.

I can just picture the tabloid headlines now: "Fire in the Forests, Water in the City"; "Killer Flood Electrifies TV News"; "Mutant Weather Threatens the World." How might you characterize this story?

Every broadcast news viewer is uniquely qualified to distort such information; that is the biggest impact of television hype.

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