On March 11, 2011, one of history’s most catastrophic tsunamis leveled dozens of Japanese towns and crippled Fukushima’s nuclear reactors. Few will forget watching the water rushing inland and the reactor explosions that followed.
Fewer still will forget the ensuing media-fed radiation fears that had residents fleeing the region, and even prompted a run on iodine pills in places as far away as the U.S. Even months after the initial accident, when accurate information had become available, overblown press coverage of Fukushima remained commonplace.
While radiation’s invisibility and long-term effects may make the Fukushima crisis especially scary, this alarmism isn’t unique to that event. Commenting on the media’s exaggerated handling of the “mad cow” crisis, Financial Times journalist George Parker stated “There is no doubt that the scare was hyped up [in other publications]. Certainly that would be the instinct of most journalists – to hype the story – rather than play a socially responsible (role) in relating issues.” Other examples include the media hysteria surrounding SARS and the long-perpetrated myth that vaccines cause autism.
This is a failure of the current information system during public health crises: sensationalism sells whereas sober, “de-sensationalized” commentary tends to remain on the fringes. Compounding the problem, as newspapers cut their research and reporting budgets, the press has become more sensitized to short-term market forces and journalists are spread ever more thinly.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Curbing the Alarmism
In times of crisis, the public needs effortless access to sound information that is timely, understandable, and not sensationalized. This is a tall order, but here in broad strokes is a possible solution.
As a crisis emerges, one or more experts would write jargon-free commentary that is then rapidly disseminated through respected news outlets, especially in the affected area.
But how would this really work? Let us take a closer look.
At the core of this system would be a board of directors that are drawn from elite organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences. The board would populate a roster of established experts who can be called upon to provide credible and timely commentary on issues as diverse as radiation, air and water pollution, earth sciences, contagious diseases, and food safety.
This loose network of specialists should come from not only leading institutions in developed countries, but also those in developing countries, particularly where public health crises are more likely to occur.
Let’s call this the Feynman Network after the brilliant Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman, who had a talent for communicating complex ideas clearly — a gift he famously exemplified by demonstrating before the Presidential Commission the Challenger shuttle’s fatal flaw using a glass of ice water.
Assisting the Network would be an on-call team of science journalists and risk-communication specialists to help deliver the experts’ message to the public. Crucially, the expert – not the journalist – will be the lead author and therefore accountable for both tone and content.
This is unlike the Science Media Centre (SMC), an independent entity that seeks to connect journalists and scientists in journalist-driven news stories. Neither is it like the press releases issued by the WHO, CDC, and other bodies, which are passed through a dense clearance process before being published through their organizations’ own outlets. Rather, the Feynman Network would produce timely, stand-alone opinion pieces to be published in the mainstream media outlets to which the public turns for news.
To ensure rapid publication, agreements should be made with popular news outlets to have a dissemination network at the ready. A useful model is Project Syndicate, where op-eds by Nobel laureates and heads of state are globally syndicated in various languages throughout the world.
The experts’ credibility would lend the opinion pieces their “newsworthiness” as the public, desperate for a clear understanding of the unfolding situation, would welcome information from authoritative sources – certainly this was the case in Tokyo following Fukushima. For example, an article headlining “Fukushima Is Not as Bad as You Think” might not be considered newsworthy if written by a journalist; but an opinion piece with that title by a widely recognized expert in the Feynman Network would no doubt draw interest.
Finally, the Network should have a funding structure that shields it from some of the revenue pressures driving today’s media. Although syndication fees would be possible, this structure should ideally have broad support by various interested organizations — in a similar way to the SMC.
The proposed system is not a silver bullet; it would by no means supplant journalists’ central role in uncovering stories and holding authorities to account. Even the world’s leading experts can be wrong – in fact, Feynman would be appalled by the idea of blindly following any expert, no matter how well qualified. Ultimately, the public must decide for itself which sources to believe. But the added voices of the world’s top specialists could only help make that decision an empowered one.
David Roberts, Science Adviser to the U.S. ambassador to Japan during the post-Fukushima recovery, was active in academic physics on both sides of the Atlantic before joining the State Department.