Bad news, especially frightening bad news, commonly gets the biggest headlines and for good reason. After all, the news business is not about chronicling the humdrum and the general normal – a better concern for sociologists and historians than for journalists. For one thing, there is too much normal to fit in the news hole. Big news is usually a smaller fraction, the things that surprise or otherwise expand or violate the norm. This does not count scandal and celebrity news, a cheap way to trick people into adding to a pub's circulation by appealing to seedier curiosity. If good news ever accounts for most news one of two things has happened. A self-congratulating despotic regime has taken power, or things have gotten so awful that the rare good outcome gets tongues wagging in relief. Catastrophe and screw-up, one is grateful to say, do not dominate daily events in most communities.
Here is a short list of recent big-time bad news stories from three outlets high on the US media pecking order and one newby on the scene. Three of them look like genuine bad news. One, however, has gotten some static as an exaggeration of the bad to get traction in the news cycle. Discussion of this last cavil follows below the bullets.
- New Yorker – Dana Goodyear: Death Dust / The valley-fever menace ; A long and detailed story that yo yo's between vivid vignettes on the fairly rare person who breathes fungal spores in the windblown dust of the American southwest and gets very sick, and persuasive health statistics showing that this sometimes near-incurable and fatal disease, cocci, doesn't have to have a high batting average to create tremendous misery and challenges to the nation's health system. Not only that but as the nation warms, Goodyear reports, valley fever's epidemiological footprint is growing larger.
- New York Times – Justin Gillis: By Degrees: The Flood Next Time / The numbers are unmistakable, scientists say. Global sea levels are rising, while land along the East Coast is sinking. Just ask Norfolk, Va.; Not just a sea level rise story, but one that should scare the willies out of city planners up and down the East Coast even if they don't believe in global warming and live under a benighted state government that has banished talk of sea level rise from local land use plans. Gillis meticulously lays out not only the forescast rates of sea level rise, but clearly separates the global phenomenon of generalized sea level rise from something that has nothing to do with the fossil fuel industry: settling of the coast as North America continues to relax from the warping it received from the ice age that ended about 12,000 years ago. Already the coastal plains are shrinking, towns and cities are seeing more briny floods, and water laps higher and higher…
- AP – Kevin Begos: Some States Confirm Water Pollution From Drilling ; As fracking for gas and oil expands across much of the nation, industry insists that the drilling needed to reach into targeted fossil fuel deposits do not – particularly often – endanger shallow aquifers and water wells. Begos reports that in just four states that he investigated hundreds of complaints of pollution or other water problems have reached local and state officials. Many, although the stats are hazy in this report, have been confirmed as valid. By inference, the industry may be overselling the safety of the drilling needed to inject high pressure fluids into deep formations and release trapped gas and oil. Public confusion and mistrust, the report says, are sure to spread. His results "cast doubt on industry suggestions" that such events are rare, he write.
- Al Jazeera – Haya El Nasser: North California drought threatens farmers, ag workers, cities – and you / Driest conditions in 100 years could hit the nation's food basket hard, affecting half of US fruits and vegetables ; I – a resident of said north California – guess it is just our turn. Most of the rest of the nation outside the northern Atlantic seaboard has gotten some serious dry times already in the last ten years or so. But outside the cities the sight of endless, crackling dry grass and brush lands has one thinking that our world is dying (yes yes, we might also get colossal rains before the wet season is over. But right now it is brushfire weather …. in January). Haya El Nasser toured the Central Valley, the American fruit and vegetable basket not to mention leading grower of cotton and rice, and didn't find much happiness. Al Jazeera has been keeping a close eye on California's dry spell (links in the story, here's a good one directly). Vignettes and stats are mixed nicely, a foreboding tone infuses the piece.
Whoo, shiver. None of these are happy reading.
I got to thinking about stories of bad and frightening news over the last week or so. David Ropeik, New York-based author and news critic, has a special interest in risk and how the public (and media) handle it. Badly, mostly, by his lights. He forwarded to ksjtracker his reservations concerning that AP story up there. As I read it, it seemed okay. It reports that there may be considerable falsehood in the industry's insistence that risks from drilling for gas and oil, mostly for getting it out via hydrofracturing deep "tight" formations of sandstone and the like, are no big deal: well within the bounds of what the public accepts from other industries. Begos set out to see whether a close look at four states would show little or no pollution hazards. He found no such assurance. At the same time, the story makes pretty clear that it is not the last word.
But Ropeik finds that the AP story failed to sharply distinguish between reports of pollution, and actual pollution verified by experts on scene with gadgets to measure foul glop and potentially harmful chemicals. The story, as he writes, does have what looks like full information. But just by bringing up pollution and fracking in one story, it in turn caused a ripple of misleading news.Other outlets picked it up, rewrote it in some cases, put overdone headlines on it, and and generally took the hundreds of reports of pollution to mean there have been hundreds of verified significant incidents. Thus we wind up with, in his view, a considerable exaggeration of the actual healthy risks posed by fracking.
Read his analysis:
- Big Think Blog: Fracked Up News Coverage of Fracking ; A good essay with a topic larger than this one story: how can the average citizen get reliable information? Ignoring the media entirely only bestows ignorance. He has some ideas.
I have emailed Ropeik to ask if the story in the New Yorker about valley fever seems to him hyped, or not. I found it very solid. If I get a reply I may amend this post as warranted.