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Reporting the end of the world

This weekend at Newsfoo, a fun little future-of-news (un)conference put on by O’Reilly Media, I proposed a session. Important sidenote: It’s an “unconference” because anyone can propose a session and structure it however they like. I proposed “Reporting the End of the World.” Quite literally, how we as journalists will do our work in the apocalypse. It is almost 2012, after all, we should be prepared.

What began as a relatively fun conceit quickly turned into a discussion of very practical things, best illustrated by how our corroborating examples began increasingly to be localized apocalypses like 9-11 or Katrina. Particularly with the scenario of global pandemic, we found ourselves unearthing critical weaknesses in our abilities to do our jobs amidst catastrophe.

Choose Your Own Apocalypse
We started by deciding which apocalypses to prepare for, eventually settling on alien invasion and global pandemic. (We decided that The Rapture, an event that wouldn’t change our lives all too much, was too entry-level to discuss.)

Alien invasion: Borrowing from Independence Day, in this scenario Earth is the target of invasion by an aggressive alien species focused on the eradication of the human race. You wake up on a Tuesday, make yourself some coffee, open your laptop and check Twitter to find spaceships are suspended above our planet’s major cities. They are preparing to attack.

Global Pandemic: The aliens left us miraculously alone, disappeared into the far reaches of space, and everybody won Pulitzers for their coverage of Invasion Watch 2012. But then, you wake up on a Tuesday, make yourself some coffee, open your laptop and check Twitter to see reports of a fast-moving, fatal illness sweeping the planet.

Communications Technologies
The first things the aliens would do, we decided, was shut down the internet and broadcast media. This is, um, a challenge for us. How are you going to post to your Alien Attack Liveblog and Alien Species Topic Page when there is no internet?? Other telecommunications? Thinking about 9-11 in particular, we realized that even if the aliens waited to zap our mobile networks, humans themselves would render them ineffective in a flurry of phone calls to Mother. This led to us recalling a list of the impressive history of human communication technologies: SMS of course (and Twitter’s 40404 short code), CB and ham radio, broadsheet newspapers, carrier pigeon, heck, even just a bullhorn.

Lessons of conflict reporting
All of us have trained for reporting in non-conflict zones. But in an alien invasion, all zones became conflict zones. As David Carr pointed out, “In conflict journalism, it’s the symmetries of war that keep reporters safe.” But there is no symmetry in our war with our would-be destroyers.

Journalists vs. Humans
Midway through this scenario someone asked if we shouldn’t be trying to interview the aliens to hear their perspective. Maybe these galactic destroyers actually have a point – a strong rationale for the elimination of the human race? (Insert much snickering about which celebrity journalists we would volunteer to be the first to sit down across from ZLORG the alien lord.) There’s a meaty question here about our role as journalists. Are we observers of a conflict between two sides? Or are we members of the resistance? (This also prompted snickering over Alien-Hugging Democrats vs. Alien-Killing Republicans.) We also discussed trying to find the alien’s journalists to make common cause- though they were likely to be propagandists. But maybe we could appeal to the alien Leni Riefenstahl?

Public Service Journalism
Both scenarios provide great opportunities to do public service journalism, “news-you-use” like “what looks like an alien’s claw-hand is actually its mouth-tube, be careful not to approach it with your delicious human guts.” A lot of reporting on aliens would be informing the public of the areas of conflict to avoid. A lot of reporting on global pandemic would be widely disseminating information about the disease.

Don’t go outside
In the pandemic scenario, how do you reporting on raging disease if you can’t go outside? We talked about building a self-reporting platform where a network around the globe could send in information about the spread of disease. Google already has a leg up on us with Global Flu Trends.

Emergency Preparedness
In both scenarios we discussed the necessity of strong emergency preparedness, but it was most evident talking about pandemic. As the superflu raged through towns and cities and the global air travel system, you would do best to stay in your home. Do any of us have two weeks worth of food and water (and whiskey) in our homes? Public service providers are well-trained to think about disaster, but journalists, who would also provide a public service in a cataclysm, seem to assume that circumstances will always be optimal.

Should we suspend facts?
But getting hard facts about the disease would be hard. I asked if, in times of crisis, we shouldn’t suspend facts? Offer our audience a spectrum of probably true to probably not true? The room agreed pretty strongly that in these scenarios facts were more important than ever. Kate Crawford talked about her organization’s experience in the recent flooding in Australia and the devastating power of rumor. We all circled back to the role rumors (and the over-reporting of false rumors) played in New Orleans immediately post-Katrina.

All in all, reporting the end of the world turned out to be great fun to imagine. I would advise every journalist out there to put together an emergency pack in your house. And probably learn ham radio.

Thanks especially to the absolutely fantastic and creative group of journalists we had in the room. If you all have any other favorite moments / take-aways, send them along and I’ll add them. Also if anyone has a picture of our whiteboard – let me know!

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