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Technogenic Disasters: A Deadly New Normal for the Media

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Some go to school to become journalists. Others hit the road with a notebook, camera and insatiable curiosity, while others have a shocking moment of awareness of the complexity of the human condition and want to document it. I decided to enter the field when a war journalist showed me a roll of images from Kosovo. The first shot was of a man engulfed in flames to the knee. In the next shot the fire spread to his waist, then his chest. By the end of the roll, he was reduced to a charred skeleton smoking on the burnt ground.

When I looked away, my eyes landed on a book, "The Journey is the Destination," in which a 22-year-old, Dan Eldon, had collected collages of his adventures around the world and across Africa, where he lived and led his friends on safari. His life had been cut short in Somalia in 1993, along with those of three other journalists who were covering the crisis there. He was murdered by an angry mob after a bombing that was intended to kill terrorists but instead took the lives of tribal elders, women and children.

868 journalists have been killed since 1992, which raises the question: is it worth dying to tell the story? Documenting what has already gone wrong often feels like a futile endeavor because no story can change the past. If the process of documentation costs another life, the tragedy is compounded.

But the successful practice of modern journalism changes the implications of this dilemma. If modern media reaches its potential, it can affect the manner in which the public copes with, mitigates and potentially holds industry and the government accountable for preventing various disasters. That’s a completely different proposition: a struggle with a potentially massive reward. When I became a journalist, I did so with the feeling that this can be achieved.

As a journalist, my focus was on the nuclear industry, the relationship between corporations and the government and technogenic disasters of all kinds, from releases of radioactive steam to toxic post-Katrina industrial spills. Since the massive ongoing meltdown in Fukushima after the earthquake in Japan, I’ve been fielding requests for interviews, essays, articles and talks, including at the United Nations, about the role of the media and government in technogenic disasters–those caused by the dangerous by-products of technology. This post contains some of my thoughts on the issue.

The Shift

I was a young reporter in a traditional landscape when I first started investigating the nuclear industry. I lived in the so-called "peak fatality zone" of Indian Point nuclear power plant on the Hudson River, close enough to New York City to include eight percent of the nation’s population within fifty miles of the reactor core and spent fuel rods stored on site. At that time, local newspapers were just starting to feel the impact of Craigslist on classifieds and only grudgingly sharing anything online, fearful that the practice would drive down the readership of the print edition.

By 1996, I was already working within the digital culture (I wrote an article, "Terms of Service: Sweaty Scenes from the Life of an AOL Censor," about my early experiences for the cover of the Village Voice), and I often found myself trying in vain to talk editors and publishers into the idea that digital mattered in a big way. In the meantime, I worked the old-fashioned way, with a pale green stenographer’s spiral notebook, pen and heavy camera. We still used film.

The traditional tools of the trade, complete with word-count limits, resource constraints and a clear division between the media and the audience, did not create the capacity to organize communities, only to inform them. The job of the media in the traditional framework was to find a news hook and tell the who, what, when, where and why of the story, presented in a format that the public expected: a radio spot, a printed article, a segment on the news between commercial breaks.

Because of the standard format of news gathering and sharing, most articles, in the zeal to get "both sides of the story," have traditionally relied on repetitively quoted industry spokespersons versus vocal opponents who make it easy to access their passionate, distorted versions of reality.

The role of the media is not to find and repeat two binary views, neither of which is very helpful except for understanding the outer limits of an otherwise extremely complex issue, but rather to investigate to find the truth through gathering and contextualizing as much data as possible. This is very much a lonely, boots-on-the-ground experience, and it’s a necessary precursor to aggregation and curating news. Without the initial fact-finding process, there’s nothing to aggregate.

Over time, as data is gathered and analyzed, it is the role of the media to spot anomalies in the pattern and to contextualize, against the framework of an ongoing exploration, the implications for the people who are affected by technogenic disasters. Sometimes a disruption in the pattern is obvious, like when an earthquake and flood lead to nuclear meltdown. But often, the long, slow, cumulative issues related to the by-products of technology aren’t so evident at first glance.

Understanding how technogenic disasters affect people in the short and long term requires patience and the development of simple, reliable community hubs where people input their own stories and data. Achieving this will also require greater emphasis on science communication, which is currently my main professional area of focus, so that complex ideas can be clearly communicated to the people impacted by them.

Modern media can serve, in many ways, a completely different function than its traditional predecessor. Even if your letter to the editor was picked for publication, giving you a voice, you had no sense of the responses it may have created at breakfast tables across your community, state, country or world. That’s different now.

The media must also serve the function of filtering the contributions of the public, taking seriously the process of discernment it entails. Not every opinion is useful, but even those contributions that seem contrary or even vitriolic might contain part of the clue that can unlock a complex story. When then executive editor of The New York Times, Bill Keller (who lost the position soon after) wondered aloud if Twitter is making us stupid, he betrayed a fundamental lack of awareness of the implications of channeling basic digital tools into useful weapons in the media’s epic struggle to transform confusion into clarity.

The greatest challenge faced by the modern media is to solve this problem. Stories need to take on many shapes and forms, just as water can become ice or steam. It’s easier to understand the crisis of credit, for example, when it’s visualized, or the national debt when it becomes your job to interactively fix the budget and see how hard it really is. Understanding the global disparity in income is a much deeper, faster process if it’s visible at a glance.

The role of the government

The role of the government is, theoretically at least, straightforward when it comes to technogenic disasters. The government’s role is to regulate industry, enforce policies meant to protect the public and provide a streamlined emergency response in the aftermath. But is the reality as straightforward as the mission? Not at all.

It is the job of the media to understand government policies and the motivation and intention behind them in order to provide useful information based on investigative research and reporting that can be used by the public and by regulatory agencies making policy and enforcement decisions. In the absence of this information, regulatory agencies often rely on information supplied by industry-funded reports and experts.

How can the media help the government stay focused on regulation, enforcement and streamlined emergency response when there are so many tempting distractions and powerful, lucrative incentives to do otherwise? The first step is simple: ask follow-up questions.

For example, during the recent flood in Nebraska that required frantic sandbagging of the neighboring nuclear plant to protect it from the water, the Wall Street Journal quoted the Nuclear Regulator Commission as saying that the public is safe because the plant was in a cold shutdown due to refueling. Danger posed by spent fuel rods, however, is completely unrelated to the plant being in cold shutdown. Spent fuel rods are always there and always vulnerable, regardless of the operational status of the nuclear reactor core that the rods came out of.

But even when stories are well-researched and presented, writing them often isn’t enough to create widespread impact. Many of the people hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, including those who lacked the resources to evacuate, were illiterate or didn’t have access to the internet. While clear communication is critical, how can the act of storytelling evolve so that it includes as many members of the local and global culture as possible?

This brings us to the most important piece of this puzzle: the public. The people who have the most to lose when too little becomes too late.

The role of the public

When an emergency forced Captain Sullenberger to land a plane filled with passengers on the Hudson River, eyewitnesses with camera phones and Twitter streams beat the media to the punch. It takes time for journalists to get someplace that people having picnics and river walks happen to be already.

When a technogenic disaster occurs, however, there are both strategic and practical reasons why people can’t just walk up to a biohazard and snap pictures. When the BP oil spill darkened the Gulf Coast and dispersants were administered, civilians were banned from the site, making it difficult to get pictures and data.

It’s easy to spot a plane landing on the Hudson River or a massive oil spill, but how can the public help investigate and prevent the often invisible erosion of regulatory oversight? In 2005, when the Bush administration exempted natural gas drillers from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the public was not yet considered part of the news-gathering team as the door was opened not just for all the perceived benefits of natural gas, but also the hundreds of chemicals used in the process that are now seeping into the drinking water of American families who can set fire to the stuff as it comes out of the tap.

One person whose family received an invitation to lease their property to drillers undertook the massive challenge of becoming a citizen journalist. Until his documentary, Gasland, was released, I knew the artist Josh Fox as a friend in New York City. His play, Surrender, which looks at the complexity of war, triggered me to publish what may well be my longest blog post of all time.

As Fox traveled between homes and towns that have been deeply affected by a process known as "fracking" to create his film, he also became a spokesperson for citizen journalism. His case is an important one because he didn’t just finish the documentary (which was nominated for an Academy Award) and go back to the life he knew before. He speaks at rallies and events and, more importantly, uses digital media to share information about the current status of the "fracking" process as well as opportunities for affected citizens to organize and take meaningful action against the cumulative effects of a future technogenic disaster that looms irrevocably over the watershed.

A technogenic disaster, like a shocking murder in a sleepy town, suddenly plunges people and places into the news. In the midst of a toxic disaster, people are overwhelmed and sometimes muzzled by their affiliations or afraid to speak out, much less to make sense of their own personal view of a much larger picture. These ordinary people, who up to that moment were just going about their lives, now have specific knowledge of complex, mysterious and potentially dangerous events. It is the role of the media to piece their stories together, give them shape, purpose and meaning. Regardless of shifts in methodology, the mission needs to remain consistent if we are to transcend this period of increasingly disastrous technogenic events.

Will we survive ourselves?

Disasters caused by the by-products of technology often have tentacles that reach around the world in an invisible stranglehold of consequences that are difficult to trace back to the source.

Nick Bostrom of the Future of Humanity Institute University of Oxford studies existential risk, the kind that could lead to human extinction. It is often a failure of imagination that leads to otherwise avoidable disasters. Existential risk is a very real long-term issue, Bostrom asserts, particularly in light of the rapid unforeseen consequences of technological experimentation. After hundreds of thousands of years of surviving existential risk, Bostrom says it’s likely that we’ve got at least another century of relative safety.

At the same time, our species is developing all kinds of new existential risks that could cause mass extinction through unintended side effects, deliberate application by a "person of malicious intent," or a successful doomsday arms race–one that ends with complete annihilation of our species.

Even the distant or nearly unthinkable possibility of such an occurrence is reason enough to try and prevent it, and it is the role of the media to spearhead this process by:

- engaging the public in relevant, actionable ways

- creating new revenue streams that don’t inherently impede the gathering and sharing of stories that industry might prefer the public to ignore

- providing an information framework that makes it more obvious why and how the government should and must perform the duties that it is meant to perform (regulating industry, enforcing policies and responding swiftly to technogenic disasters).

If modern tools are explored to their fullest, without fear of failure of conforming to an industry standard caught between two disparate eras, the media can eventually fill the role of helping to provide solutions instead of just documenting what has already gone wrong.

Each one of us has a different role to play. Some of us will spend months researching mountains of data. Some of us will contextualize that data into text, visuals, maps, videos, platforms and other mediums that should include greater levels of outreach and engagement.

Some of us will be the ones who happen to be standing in the spot where news breaks like an explosion into an otherwise perfectly banal day. The role of the great modern media is to orchestrate usefulness and order from this chaotic process and help us more clearly see how we can shape our own future, together, before we miss our chance. The incentive to collaborate across national borders is clear: climate change is the ultimate technogenic disaster, and we’re going to need the world’s top journalists from every town and city to cover the beat.

Image: ssoosay on Flickr

About the Author: Rita J. King is the EVP of Business Development at Science House, the Generalissima of the Imagination Age, Founder and Creative Director of Dancing Ink Productions and lover of the infinite cosmos.

Follow Rita on Twitter: @RitaJKing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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