How The Mainstream Media Is Failing Us With Its Nuclear Hysteria

The news from Japan is both awful and appalling. Awful: 23,000 confirmed dead or missing, and counting. Appalling: pretty much anything to do with the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. Nuclear meltdown like Chernobyl! Deadly contaminated milk and radioactive tap water! Tokyo a postapocalyptic ghost town! A plume of radiation that threatens America’s West Coast!

Where do they get these morons? Again, twenty thousand people are dead, and the drooling dimwits of the media can’t stop babbling about Fukushima, where exactly one person died – a crane operator who had the misfortune to be up in the cab of his vehicle when the fifth largest earthquake in recorded history hit – and fewer than 30 were injured, only a handful of whom required treatment for radiation exposure.

But all the nattering nabobs can talk about is the hysteria cited above. I used to have time for CNN, but next time I visit America, it’ll be Fox News all the way. At least their idiocy is entertaining. I dare you to try to watch this CNN clip without cringing. It seems Bob Dylan was wrong: you do need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows—

It’s been interesting seeing which Fukushima stories went viral. First, Josef Oehmen’s post, the day after the disaster. (Why? My theory: because on the day it was the only available information written by someone who sounded like he actually knew what he was talking about.) Then Randall Munroe’s brilliant radiation explainer, which would have made Edward Tufte himself weep with delight. Finally, yesterday, this undeniably awesome Badass of the Week.

In short, the truth, context, and most compelling stories of the disaster have been promulgated by a) a weatherman, b) an amateur, c) a cartoonist, and d) Badass of the Week. Meanwhile, what were the so-called “real media” up to?

Of course I’m far from the first to be furious about this. Talking Points Memo, James Altucher, and Tim Bray, among many others, led the way. Noted environmental activist George Monbiot argues that Fukushima should turn people pro-nuclear power. But the voices of reason are mostly lost in the hurricane of panicked nonsense.

What went wrong? Well, never ascribe to malice what can be ascribed to ignorance, so I’m going to optimistically argue that the basic problem is that most journalists simply don’t have a clue when it comes to science and engineering. They don’t understand what they’re writing about; they don’t know which questions to ask; they don’t understand that science, unlike the arts, is ultimately about provability and falsifiability, not interpretation and opinion; they don’t know when government advice is reasonable and when it’s terrified CYA boilerplate; and they don’t know when to call bullshit on whatever source they have dredged up to provide “balance,” which they worship beyond all explanation.

Worse yet, instead of linking to their sources, they expect us to take what they say on faith. Consider Ben Goldacre’s recent excoriation of the (usually respectable) UK newspaper The Telegraph for a ridiculous piece headlined “Wind farms blamed for stranding of whales”, which was about a scientific paper which said nothing of the sort, and which wasn’t linked to in the article. Every serious story about Fukushima should link to that XKCD diagram. I can’t believe I just typed that sentence, but it’s true.

Every story should link to all of its sources. Today the online story is the story of record; paper is disposable, irrelevant, and obsolete before it’s printed. But too many mainstream journalists still think print-first, which is one reason you get this kind of context-free nuclear hysteria, or “wind farms kill whales”, or the risible “cell phones kill bees” story from The Independent—again, a “serious” newspaper—four years ago.

To be fair, part of the problem is that no mainstream journalist could countenance writing about Hideaki Akaiwa in a manner as irreverent and entertaining as that of Badass of the Week; and they do still sometimes hit ’em out of the park. Take this stunning New York Times piece about the so-called Fukushima 50. That is, if you can penetrate the paywall (at least in Canada, where I live). I know they have their reasons, but it’s sad to see the NYT (which has some excellent journalists who do understand technology) about to take two steps back from the online world just when we need them most.

This is all just going to get worse, because, increasingly, all stories are tech stories. Politics? Obama’s staggering online fundraising. Sports? BALCO and high-tech new equipment. Culture? These days, even fine art is all about the Arduino. Technology has insinuated itself into our lives to such an extent that every story now has a technical aspect — but yesterday’s dinosaur journalists will continue to write about them in the same clumsy-to-moronic way that they wrote about Fukushima.

Disaster there was averted by genuine heroism and desperately hard work. Nuclear power is potentially extremely dangerous and raises many serious issues, and it’s important to debate them in a well-educated way. Instead we got a crowd of fearmongering idiots, each trying to shriek louder than the last. As a result, Fukushima was the first major world story for which the best way to stay well-informed was to tune in to the knowledgeable blogosphere—and tune out the so-called “mainstream media.” We all know they’re dying. Now I’m starting to wonder why we should care.

Image credit: John Morrison, Flickr