Monday, March 14, 2011

What Is (Or Isn't) Going On?

I've been watching the coverage of the events in Japan - the earthquake, the tsunami, and now the brooding risk of three cantankerous nuclear reactors - with a mixture of horror, fascination, and frustration.

Horror - obviously. The loss of so many lives and the irrecoverable changes to the lives of the survivors is the greatest disaster in my recent memory. Fascination - yes, I will admit it. There is a sort of twisted fascination with keeping abreast of a terrible event, something akin to the "oh, let me try that spoiled milk too" urge that we feel. I'm not talking Schadenfreude, that's what keeps us watching Charlie Sheen. There is no twisted joy in this, no chuckling man-that-dude-is-nuts, no self esteem boosting confirmation that our decision not to shack up with porn stars was a good one. But there is some urge none the less.

Frustration - that too, and that is what this blog is about. Frustration not with the events themselves or with responses to them, but frustration with the coverage itself. Some years back, I wrote a post about watching the invasion of Iraq, and feeling like I should be able to "reload the war" and get things to move along at the pace I expected. That post was about the pace of coverage, and about how or expectations as an audience had grown divorced from the reality of life.

This frustration is more about the quality and accuracy of coverage - and how the same infrastructure that made reload-the-war expectations possible also makes massively divergent coverage possible. Take a look at this little snippet of Google news, captured at 12:42pm Pacific Daylight (uugh) time:

Ok, which is right? Is the disaster risk fading or escalating?

Now contradictory headlines are nothing new. I'm sure that if you brought up Fox News and MSNBC and simply looked at what they had to say about the President, you'd find some very contradictory interpretations. Even in the pre-internet days (remember those?) different news agencies would have different spins. Most cities had a Republican newspaper and a Democrat newspaper. That is until the general demise of print news changed this so that most cities now just have a newspaper, sometimes.

But of editorial license, selective coverage, and yellow journalism, none of these are new.

Timeliness, that's what is new. No longer do we wait for a news source (paper, 5:00 broadcast, whatever) to amass, collate, analyze, and summarize. We can go direct to Twitter and Facebook for our own personal updates on what that-dude-with-the-camera-phone-saw. Such reports are obviously snapshots (no pun intended), highly localized, and biased. To satisfy our reload-the-war pacing, however, those news agencies that used to be responsible for amassing, collating, analyzing, and summarizing events increasingly rely on the same firsthand observers, passing along tweets and chat room comments and in so doing imbuing localized, biased snapshots with an air of authority.

Of course this isn't helped by rush-to-a-headline coverage, sensationalism, and general ignorance of the subtleties of a very technical trade. Even when news agencies are amassing, collating, and all that other stuff, they can display very different results. Nuclear energy makes great news fodder - it has a sort of brooding-menace, a mysterious ability to harm from afar, sits astride a highly politicized divide, and frankly is poorly understood by enough of the public and the news media that it is easy to fill dead air with speculation and gossip and not risk getting called out fudging, exaggerating, or just not knowing what the hell you are talking about.

My case in point being the two articles form Reuters and The Guardian. Both are legitimate press, written my (presumably) legitimate reporters. Both, let us assume, trying to do good reporting and to accomplish all those goals of traditional media. Yet here are two wildly divergent assessments(or at least headlines) sitting right next to each other, both showcased as "new" news. So what is going on?

Part of this is simply the confusing time compression of real-time access to news. Some news sources are updated with the latest to-the-minute information. Others update a little behind the times. Why? Who knows...better effort at confirming sources, an ill-timed bathroom break, different editorial update policies, the intrusion of night-time. News scraping engines like Google may catch both updates as "new" news while one really reflect the situation six or eight or more hours ago. Which one is current?

In such situations, people tend to believe the news that agrees with their preconceived notions and expectations of what is going on. Convinced nukes are bad? Then a meltdown is right around the corner and that is very, very bad. Confident in man's ability to tame the atom? Well then that meltdown risk is totally under control and wouldn't have been that bad anyway.

Of course media outlets, determined to keep you watching and/or clicking, are going to choose to feature whatever details imply the most rapidly evolving don't-miss-a-minute situation possible (good or bad, but bad things really do tend to keep people tuned in a whole lot more). By the time the situation settles down it will be, well, settled down. Charlie Sheen will, yet again, be an F-18 and so no one will bother to report (or to pay attention to, if it was reported) what really went down. Bad things happened or they didn't, it'll all depend on the mind of the beholder.

We are at a point where our ability to access information is nearly instant. We can get the latest news that is available at a mouse-click. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it is the latest development. This adds to that unhealthy obsession to get the latest. Because the rippling waves of update create a further false impression of development.

Oh good, the plant is getting better!

Oh no, the plant is getting worse!

Oh really? Perhaps nothing has changed and we are just seeing the illusory dynamic of waves of news, some moving at different speeds, propagating outward from the source.

It is enough to drive you nuts. Skepticism, patience, and some sort of ability to perceive the moving average of the drama, to sense the error bars surrounding today's median how-fucked-is-the-world-ometer reading is the only way to stay sane.