The coverage of the Japanese reactor situation reminds me of the coverage of many other technical issues when they overlap with serious breaking news stories. I wrote a little on this subject a few years ago, talking about the Merck/Vioxx business, but I wanted to expand on it.
I’m not going to rant on about the popular press not understanding this or that scientific or technical issue. There are more systemic problems with the way that news is reported, and in the way that we take it in. I’m not sure of what to do about them other than to be aware of them, but that’s an important step right there.
The first of these is narrative bias. Reporters like to relay stories (and the rest of us like to hear stories) that have a progression. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end, the way our most popular novels and movies do. Something starts, something happens, something ends. Real life sometimes conforms to this template, but sometimes it doesn’t. For example, some situations don’t start, so much as they suddenly get noticed after they’ve been there all along. And some don’t end, so much as they just stop having attention paid to them.
Another narrative-bias problem is the tendency to assign participants in any event to recognizable categories: good guys and bad guys, for starters. Moving to finer distinctions, there’s Plucky Young X, Suffering Y, Salt-of-the-Earth Z, along with Untrustworthy Spokesman A, Obfuscating B, Crusading C, and the whole crowd. Mentally, we tend to assign people to such categories, especially if we don’t know them personally, and it makes it easier for reporters, too. It’s a team effort. The problem is, of course, that not everyone fits into a recognizable category, and many others overlap in ways that a simple narrative structure won’t accommodate. Most real people are capable (more or less simultaneously) of great and venal actions, of heroism and cowardice, of altuism and selfishness.