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Friday, 10 June 2011

Public Information versus "News"

A discussion on a forum I frequent has got me thinking on the manner in which the media reports any sort of crisis these days. Often it appears that the first casualty is fact.

From experience I know, to my cost, that often what is said, is 'filtered' by the media - not I hasten to add with malicious intent - because they have 'X' number of words to tell the story in, and this is where the 'Chinese Whispers Effect' sets in. What I may say and what a reporter hears me say may be the first step in 'message' drift and it becomes particularly acute when you are faced with a media scrum all shouting their questions and sometimes interpreting your not being able to provide the answer in a 'negative' way.

Communication is a major problem for all Emergency Managers, it becomes even more acute when, as happens in many countries, the professionals are told to 'brief' a senior bureaucrat or politician who then confronts the media and spins or edits the original without understanding the technicalities or the implications.

I've had to stand by fuming in frustration as this happened on one occasion. The message that went out, as a result, was disaster looking for a moment to happen. Fortunately, it was retrievable in that instance - but only because the media twigged there was something adrift in what they were being told and came looking privately for facts.

It is even worse when you have an outbreak like the present E-Coli/EHEC outbreak in Germany, where the causitive agent is not identified immediately and the media and populace must be told. What to say and what not to say becomes a major problem. It gets even more complicated when the media start rushing about trying to get interviews and reports from 'people close to the source' - which can mean the company Janitor if no one else can be persuaded to say anything.

I may say that the media and political handling of the Fukushima crisis typifies the problem.

The Greens and Greenstrife, Fiends of the Earth and all the anti-nuclear crowd have had a field day spinning and twisting fact with sheer fantasy. There isn't a single German Nuclear station built on a major earthquake fault line or anywhere it could get hit be an earthquake and a tsunami, but the Greens have demanded they are all closed down and nuclear banned, in case one is. They've bussed people from one site to another, they've mobilised their troops and even insist that a 9-11 style attack on one will result in a 'nuclear blast.'

Fukushima itself is presented as 'proof' that nuclear reactors explode, when the reality is that it was a hydrogen build-up in the buildings housing the reactors and not the reactors that blew. That has been said again and again, but Greenstrife et al insist it is a 'nuclear explosion' and the fear raddled foot soldiers have taken up the chant.

The result is the German government have set a nuclear plant shut-down deadline which will see the German's either buying their power from someone else, our turning off the lights in alternate cities in 2020. All of this the result of poor communication.

I'm sure there's a doctorate in it for someone.

I'm equally convinced that our 'Information Age' should be renamed the "Age of Mass Hysteria and Misinformation."

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