OXFORD – In order to be helpful, it really is the job of America’s press to work in three tenses. People want to be told what has happened, such as a verdict in a murder trial. People want to be told what is happening, such as live coverage of a football game. And there’s also a duty to predict the future.
Think of it in terms of a weather forecast. You already know whether it rained yesterday or is raining today. What you really want to know is whether it will rain tomorrow. That means there’ll always be jobs for what a former colleague called “weather-guessers.”
A problem, quite obviously, is that much of today’s media is audience-driven and there’s more guessing going on than ever. Another problem is that surefire way to get readers, viewers and ratings is to scare the heck out of people by telling them what “might” happen.
One way to do that is to overstate the situation. Here’s something I wrote three months ago:
“It was 41 days from the explosion to the first oil washing onto Petit Bois Island, meaning even as the flow is reduced and the well is capped, the sea will remain fouled. Shrimp and many species of fish hatch annually in the brackish marshes that remain all along the coast, and if that cycle isn’t halted it will at least be seriously curtailed. It could take many years for populations to approach ‘normal’ again and ‘normal’ for Mississippi’s seafood industry is uncounted jobs and about $1.5 billion in the state economy.”
I didn’t make that up. I had been reading and listening to the growing number of expert predictions that the Gulf of Mexico would become a lifeless void. I didn’t fall whole hog in with those who were mocking Gov. Haley Barbour and other voices of moderation, but I failed to trust that the environment would prove to be as resilient as it has been. So I joined the chorus of gloom and doom.
As we now know, the flow of oil has stopped and the safety of seafood in Mississippi and other coastal waters has been certified via hundreds of tests. Even Mississippi oysters, probably most vulnerable to pollution, are said to be fine.
Caution can be a good thing. When the press issues warnings of various sorts, paying attention can result make an enormous difference.
Witness Hurricane Katrina. I remember a network TV reporter’s interview with a parish official in a rural area of South Louisiana two days after the storm. As they walked along a levee, residential wreckage and destruction was visible for what seemed to be miles. “Where are all the people?” the reporter asked, assuming there must have been mass casualties. The local guy looked at her with a puzzled expression. “Uh, they weren’t here,” he said. “They left last week.”
In news reporting terms, Katrina was tough. It wasn’t even named until a Thursday, the same day it hit Florida’s eastern coast killing four people. As is often the case, the storm weakened to category 1 after it crossed land and moved into the Gulf of Mexico. Then, over the weekend, Katrina became a supercharged monster, taking another 1,832 lives, according to the still unofficial death tally, as it made landfall in Mississippi the following Monday.
Yet in that short span enough people got word – or used their own wits – to get inland. If they hadn’t, the death count would have been in the tens of thousands. Even in New Orleans, flooded after the storm, estimates were that 80 percent of the population had fled.
So score the media alarm raised in advance of Katrina as a plus.
But weather is far from the only context in which today’s press “scares” people. Stories about contaminated food (most recently eggs) go viral and stories about viral viruses (H1N1) go viral.
Rarely is there any reason for mass panic. Food poisoning resulting from people mishandling consumables that were perfectly pure when purchased is far more common than illness from tainted products. Influenza is serious and, yes, there is a risk of an unchecked epidemic, but mortality figures from flu are (1) high almost every year and (2) fairly consistent over time.
Most people, it’s likely, take breathless media reports of impending doom in stride. But it’s also likely that a culture of fear is created for others. They avoid social contact to keep illness at bay. They eliminate peanut butter from their diet because “it could happen again.”
The best approach would seem to be a middle course. Be aware that the media, more and more, thrives on scaring us. But be aware, as well, that sometimes we need to be scared.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.