Plant Explosion Texas from The Bay Area's News Station.

Plant Explosion Texas from The Bay Area’s News Station.

Three Disasters, Three Levels of Media Coverage

Unless you’ve been adventuring in the wilderness, or have sworn off media altogether, you know about the April 15, 2013 bombing in Boston, which killed 3 and injured 176. You had to pay a bit more attention to hear about the fertilizer plant explosion on April 17, 2013 in West, Texas (ironically located in eastern Texas). As of today, there are 14 dead (including 11 emergency responders), 200 injured, and over 75 buildings and homes damaged or destroyed. In my local paper, it was on the 4th and 5th pages.  There was a 7.8 earthquake in Iran/Pakistan on April 16. Were you even aware of it? The official death count is incredibly low at 35, but the Iranians are close-mouthed about things on their side of the border. Finally, there was a smaller but more deadly earthquake in China less than 24 hours ago. It’s too soon to tell where it will fall on the public radar!

Why do we read/care so much about some tragedies and not others? Iran and Pakistan – well, they are 3rd world countries on the other side of the globe who don’t play well with America. If a 7.8 earthquake happened in Canada, we might pay a bit more attention. But why so little attention to a massive explosion in Texas? It’s in America, it killed and injured more people than Boston, including our traditional heroes (emergency responders), and destroyed the houses of unsuspecting civilians sleeping peacefully in bed. Was it just bad timing, coming in the middle of the Boston Marathon bombing story?

Media Consumption

Perhaps I’m not a typical media consumer. I haven’t watched television in almost 20 years, except when visiting my parents (who leave it on all evening). Most days, I still have a cup of coffee and read our local newspaper – on paper! I don’t use Twitter, although I’m gradually mastering other social media. I get disaster alerts on my smart phone. I mostly hear about breaking news from friends or Facebook, which sometimes prompts a quick on-line check. On the other hand, when something catches my interest (like my blog topics), I research intensely, finding non-media sources when possible. When using actual media, I look for the most facts and the least sensationalism (today’s San Francisco Chronicle headline “Week of Terror Ends” was a definite NO).

Obviously, I’m not a media expert. But my relative “disconnection” sometimes prompts observation of the media phenomena with fascination. When starting this topic today, I felt somewhat resentful about coverage of the bomb and man hunt. Perhaps it was the first paragraph in my local paper which stated “…ending a tense five-day drama that gripped Massachusetts with fear and rekindled the specter of terror across the nation”. Is that really our emotional reaction to this event –nationwide fear and terror for five days? If so, what role did media coverage play in our reaction?

Matching Press Coverage to Public Interest

Boston Bombing by Vjeran Pavic

Boston Bombing by Vjeran Pavic

As I think about it,  blaming the press for disproportionate coverage of some events is not really fair. After all, they’re in the business of making money. At the Atlanta Public Health Preparedness Summit, Dr. Richard Besser (Chief Health and Medical editor for ABC News) told the disaster preparedness community loud and clear – “Media is not your partner”. Media wants accurate and timely information from public health and emergency management, but their purpose isn’t to deliver our message. They want to sell papers (and ads/commercials). They publish what the public wants to read or see (or so they believe). Unfortunately, the press is also not the public’s partner. Repeated studies tell us that excessive consumption of disaster reports is hazardous to your health, yet media makes it awfully difficult to avoid.

So what does the public want in the way of coverage? If anyone knew for sure, they could sell the secret and become a gazillionaire. Media is pretty good at predicting public interest, considering it’s a moving target. Of course, if media created interest in a topic in the first place…  The Pew Research Center publishes yearly results on the match between coverage and interest. Most years, one or more disasters top the list on both sides, although the public often stays interested even after the press moves on. But what part of a disaster should the press focus on? That’s harder to predict. In the Japan earthquake, Americans consumed stories about the nuclear meltdown more avidly than the actual tsunami or earthquake, despite over 18,000 people missing or dead (none from nuclear exposure). One current trend, well-illustrated by the Boston Bombing coverage, is increasing disregard for accuracy by the press, and apparent acceptance by the public. In the “good old days”, apologies, retractions, and printed corrections followed media errors. These days, it’s more like “Oops – and moving on”

Fatality Facts

Wear Your Seat Belt! Photo by NHTSA

Wear Your Seat Belt! Photo by NHTSA

How about some facts to put things in perspective. Since we  learn about disasters primarily through the media, we can miss the big picture, particularly after a week spent on a single event. If you are “gripped with fear”, perhaps this will help. (Actually, if you are really gripped with fear, you may need help working through the fear before it leads to longer term mental health issues – check out FEMAs Coping with Disaster page for some initial suggestions)

United States deaths in 2010 (a sampling of causes) – CDC

All causes – 2,468,435 (average life expectancy 78)
Cardiovascular disease – 780,213
Cancer – 574,743
Influenza and pneumonia – 50, 097
Suicide 38,364 (suicide by firearm – 19,392)
Motor Vehicle Accidents – 35,332
Homicide – 16,259 (homicide by firearm – 11,078)
Alcoholic liver disease – 15,990

Bottom line – instead of fixating on risks, try to improve your odds by controlling weight, getting flu vaccines, wearing seat belts, and good mental health care. Your risk is astronomically higher from these causes than from any disaster out there – and you can actually do something about these causes!

Facts on Explosives

Explosives Lab in Nablus. Photo by Israel Defense Forces

Explosives Lab in Nablus. Photo by Israel Defense Forces

United States bombings January 1983 – December 2002 (Journal of Trauma 2005)

 36,110 total bombing incidents in 20 years
699 deaths, 5,931 injuries
1,237 (58.8%) explosive bombings
6,185 (17.1%) incendiary bombings
1,107 (3.1%) premature bombings
7,581 (21.0%) attempted bombings

Intent was homicide in roughly 50-75%, followed by extortion and revenge.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF):
US Bomb Data Center Explosives Incidents 2004-2012
(bombings, attempted bombings, incendiary bombings, stolen explosives, and “other”)

Year

No. of Explosives Incidents

No. of Injuries

No. of Fatalities

2012* 4,033 37 1
2011 5,219 36 5
2010 4,897 99 22
2009 3,886 57 4
2008 4,198 97 15
2007 3,143 60 15
2006 3,797 135 14
2005 4,031 148 19
2004 3,919 263 36

Over 4,000 explosive incidents every year? That doesn’t make me feel great, until you notice that the number of deaths is quite low – less than 20 a year. In addition, most bombs are not random events – they target specific people, just like “garden variety” homicide.

Terrorism Statistics

How do you define terrorism? Wikipedia uses “the use of violence to intimidate a population or government and thereby affect political, religious, or ideological change.” The FBI states “today’s domestic terror threats run the gamut, from hate-filled white supremacists…to highly destructive eco-terrorists…to violence-prone anti-government extremists…to radical separatist groups.” To define a crime as terrorism, motive must be determined, yet to me (based on media reports!), motivation often seems murky.

Wikipedia lists 33 acts of terrorism in the United States since 1990, including the Boston Marathon event. Not counting 9/11, I tally up 46 terrorism deaths. Of course, 9/11 had an extra 2,996 victims between the planes, the Pentagon, and New York City. I know Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but official domestic terrorism statistics are hard to come by (although the FBI reported 4,623 victims of domestic hate crimes against persons in 2011, including 4 murders).

Worldwide in 2011, the National Counterterrorism Center: Annex of Statistical Information lists 10,283 acts of terrorism, with 12,533 deaths – a five-year low! 2,265 attacks against non-combatants occurred in Iraq alone. There were only 420 terrorism attacks in the Western Hemisphere, almost all related to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The United States was attack free in 2011. As far as method, terrorism attempts via bombing stays steady at 4000-4500 a year worldwide.

Obviously, US statistics look pretty good. I wouldn’t lose sleep over terrorism in the United States – the powers-that-be are doing a good job watching over us. Of course we all should stay alert and prepared, but not excessively anxious.

Photo by Sheila Sund M.D.

Photo by Sheila Sund M.D.

Industrial Explosions

What about your risk of industrial explosion, like the event in West, Texas? Again, it takes sleuthing to come up with complete lists, but by combining sources, I identified at least 12 multiple fatality industrial explosions in the United States since 1990, with 146 deaths. Other areas in the world are far worse. Mines, fertilizer factories, food processing, chemical plants, grain storage – lots of things can blow up, often because of human error and/or inadequate safety procedures. We rarely even know the risk exists in our communities. Unfortunately, no one watches industry as closely as we do potential terrorists. Even when safety violations are found, fines and enforcement are often minimal. So if you want an explosion to worry about, I’d go with industrial. Even then, the risk is minuscule to the risk of texting while driving.

Which of the following factors influence your interest in reading or following disaster stories?

What factors  drive our “disaster” media consumption? Why one disaster and not another? For fun, I’ve added a quick 4 question survey on the things that influence your choices. It’s the first time I’ve used this survey instrument, so I’m not sure if it will automatically show results. If it doesn’t, I’ll periodically post them in the comments. When you are done with the survey, give your computer a break, turn off the television,  recycle your newspapers, and change the radio to iPod. Take a walk, do some yoga, and enjoy spring. It’s time to set the disasters of last week aside and move on. Your safety has not changed!

 

Stay safe,

Sheila Sund, M.D.

(I apologize if you were looking for Part 2 of tornadoes, but I felt this topic needed to come first.)

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Comments
  1. Howard Richards says:

    Sheila

    The only thing the news media is now into is making money. They do not really care for the facts, just the nice little juicy bits and pieces. Fact checking is really not their job. It’s anything goes, and the heck with the truth. If is sales, it prints. The sad part is that people are not willing to take the time and effort to get to the facts at all.

    • disasterdoc says:

      News media always had making money as their primary goal, but I agree it appears worse now. However, I blame the public as well. In “the good old days”, the public wouldn’t buy or watch news that was unreliable. Now the public doesn’t seem to care much about accuracy, so why should media?

      I read an interesting report that suggests the use of rapid social media has changed our expectation for accuracy. Everyone knows that individual tweets or posts may be wrong, so people automatically filter for frequently recurring information instead of believing any single report (including official media). In addition, people recognize that even frequently repeated messages may be wrong, so they check back frequently for updates and corrections. In order for traditional media to fit in, they have to post new reports frequently. The frequency of reporting influences views or readership more than accuracy.

      I confess that when I go on-line looking for current news, I often choose the most recent article instead of choosing the most reliable source. Of course, I don’t necessarily believe what I read, but I start there.

  2. OT says:

    People in general tend to believe the information that is in sync with their existing worldviews and beliefs with less scrutiny. The bias only gets stronger as filtered “news” reconfirms prior convictions.

    The habit of checking and rechecking for facts, setting aside personal beliefs, is something that is developed with time and takes effort. For many, news reading is a consumption process and, especially with the growing role of the social media, is more of an entertainment than a quest for accurate facts.

    With that said, I think the challenge is on the disaster professionals to find ways to employ media to serve the purposes and benefit the public. Understanding what drives that top story is the first step.

    • disasterdoc says:

      I agree. The Boston Police department apparently embraced Twitter during the aftermath of the bombing, with frequent tweets on current facts – often correcting the rumor of the moment. If we all embrace similar methods of communication in emergencies or disasters, the public might learn to refer to official sources for frequent factual updates. That would give us more more power than we have currently.

      For the last few days, I’ve been researching social psychology literature about public responses to disaster news. Not only is it fascinating, but it really makes me think about better ways to present the preparedness message.

  3. disasterdoc says:

    Not very many people have taken the survey, so statistically it’s meaningless. However, of the respondents so far, 70% are more interested in national than global news and 80% are more interested in intentional events than natural or accidental disasters. We are split 50:50 on whether the number of casualties influences our interest, and 60% say they are more likely to seek media coverage if they relate personally with the disaster location – lower than I would have guessed for the last two. I encourage readers to take the survey. It helps (me at least) understand our responses to disasters, and perhaps this may apply to preparedness messages as well.
    Sheila 4-23-13

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