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Fake News Redux: The Hype and Hyperbole of Disaster Coverage

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2017-09-26
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In my more than 20 years of writing for 9-1-1 Magazine, I have never had occasion to address the same topic in consecutive months until today. However, the recent plague of natural disasters has given me reason to produce an immediate follow up to my last column. Coverage of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as well as the earthquake in Mexico City has served as the catalyst for me to revisit how the media handles – and sometimes mishandles – reports about our industry.

In August, I spoke of the misguided impressions provided by sensational headlines and tantalizing trailers that sucked viewers, listeners, and readers into a story. These “teasers” typically turn sometimes relatively minor ripples into tidal waves, blurring the line between fantasy and fact. Since we all know that severe weather poses the most formidable challenges imaginable to Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), it’s a safe bet that the stories that accompany these disasters also take a walk on the wild side.

Let’s start with one of my favorites; an article titled “Some Complain Houston 9-1-1 Response Was Too Slow.” Really? Slow as compared to what? According to all the official numbers I’m seeing, telecommunicators there handled more calls related to Harvey alone than many centers process in a year. Do you think this might have something to do with a slight delay in picking up the phone? When calls were answered, a hundred or more were waiting impatiently in queue behind them in a never-ending avalanche of requests. As is often the case, the distinction between 9-1-1 the number and the public perception of 9-1-1 as the entire public safety delivery chain also got blurred. When half the city is underwater and it’s physically unsafe to drive due to high winds and airborne debris, ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars have no special dispensation from the laws of physics. Sadly, this was graphically demonstrated by the storm-related deaths of two deputies in Florida.

Added to the list of accusatory remarks is this banner: “Woman Trapped in Home: 911 Told Us Not to Call.” I hasten to say that any right-minded person would be outraged at the thought implied here, and rightfully so, if it were true. But is it? Well, yes and no. In an interview with CNN, conducted from the home in which she was “trapped”, the caller calmly and factually reported that emergency crews were in her neighborhood, rescuing those in immediate danger first. My impression was that the folks at 9-1-1 knew where she and her family were as well as their condition, and advised that another call was not necessary. Frankly, she seemed fairly composed given the uncomfortable situation. I’m by no means minimizing her plight, but I am saying that she was not the one pouring gasoline on the fire. The intentionally sensationalized headline in no way represented the contents of the report.  Again, however, if the headline was all you saw, you would have no way of knowing this and be left with an inaccurate and likely indignant impression.

Which brings us to Frida Sofia, the heroic 12-year-old Mexican girl who was trapped in the rubble of her school during a devastating earthquake. Except she wasn’t.  Wasn’t what? Wasn’t named Frida, wasn’t 12, wasn’t Mexican, wasn’t trapped, and most importantly of all – wasn’t real! In a perverse imitation of Where’s Waldo? significant time, effort, and emotions were invested in the salvation of an apparent apparition.  Rescue workers spent more than three days searching until operations abruptly ceased. There are a number of theories regarding how all of this got started, but most of them seem innocent enough. After all, we’re typically hungry for the good amongst the bad, and another heroine is always needed. The take away here is that fake news also exists as rumor. It does not have to be intentionally manufactured, and in fact, may be more damaging when it is not. While the mainstream media seems to have brought this one to the party, we need to be increasingly cognizant of the role played by social media, especially during times of crisis. While applications such as Facebook afforded the means for storm impacted individuals to provide safe statuses to friends and loved ones, and other services allowed for communication independent of the conventional and cellular telephone networks, there were also complications. Bad information provided through social media can spread like wildfire. It is difficult to trace, and almost impossible to control. In short, the ability to ensure that the public gets the official story no longer rests in having a singular Public Information Officer make periodic scheduled releases.  It also incorporates the aggressive monitoring of the most popular programs and applications, and the maintenance of an active presence there before, during, and after the disaster.

All this is not to say that governmental lines of communication never contribute to the problem. They do. Witness a recent event in California where the Emergency Alert System broadcast dire warnings of alien invasions and the end of times. The only thing scarier than this alarm was the initial explanation of how it happened. According to the Los Angeles Times, “A Cox (one of the cable companies that aired the message) spokesman told the newspaper that viewers should have seen a typical emergency-broadcast test but a technical malfunction caused it to go on longer than it should have. He said the broadcast picked up an audio feed that bled into the alert.”  Since the warning seems to be compiled from two completely different pieces of archival audio, one from a talk show and the other from a religious broadcast, it’s difficult to see how this could have happened.  It is critical that we ensure the absolute security and accuracy of our most sensitive communications. If, and when this messaging goes wrong, we must also understand that the public not only wants, but needs, an adequate and timely explanation. Without this, confidence is lost.

When I return next month, it will hopefully be with a new topic. That’s not to say that fake news won’t still be around. It will be. But like everything else related to our profession, we’ll do our best to extract the truth from each emerging situation. That’s one piece of news you can count on.

 

With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in four states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community.  See www.barryfurey.com 

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