I learned how to be a journalist in the late nineties. One of my class assignments was to use a telephone book and a curly-que-tailed phone to find and call sources. At my first job, I was expected to know how to navigate my way around the city using a large map book in the news vehicle.
Six months after graduation, the reporters in my shop were being asked to become “convergence journalists” and report on television, a regional newspaper, and the internet at the same time.
Some of my colleagues balked. “We are TV reporters,” some declared. “Why would I put my work on the internet at lunch when the news doesn’t come on until 5 p.m.?” others asked. It was no better at the regional newspaper where the print reporters would refuse to share their story on television because “nobody brought a brush” to brush their hair before going on the evening news.
Three months later, 9/11 happened.
That was nearly 17 years ago and I was on the front lines of a shift in journalism and clearly remember the panic it caused in my newsroom. Now, a reporter needs smartphone with a strong signal and a full battery.
As the world around us changed, the newspaper industry stayed the course, belatedly posting content in text-laden, visually uninteresting stories and giving away the proverbial milk for free.
I am most likely at the midpoint of my career and the traditional news industry is fighting for its life. Media companies are rethinking the way they are doing business. Nowadays, to see a print reporter on television is commonplace; in fact, many journalists have built followings by offering live updates to their reporting throughout the day via Twitter. This was unthinkable when I started my career (and to be honest, some of my colleagues would have out-right refused!).
The use of mass notification during crisis has been a topic for this blog before. In this edition of Modern Retro PR, I noted a correlation between two incidents of causing mass panic through the medium of the day.
Modern: Hawaii Ballistic Missile Push Notification Alert
This weekend, residents and visitors in Hawaii were informed through mobile push notifications that a ballistic missile was headed their way. People in Hawaii thought the world was coming to an end, sheltered in place, and told their loved ones goodbye.
People in Hawaii waited for more information from the state government through the channel that sent the first harrowing message: their cell phones. But nothing came. So they turned online to glean any information they could, only to learn that 38 minutes after the initial text message, their lives were never in jeopardy.
It turned out the push notification was sent as the result of human error—a mistake.
Error or not, it was a panic-inducing event playing out in real time, online.
Taylor, et. al, noted that during times of crisis, social media is key to offering “connectedness; both to loved ones and to the broader community, providing reassurance, support and routes to assistance” (2015).
This time the panic was caused by an accident, but something like this has happened once before—on purpose.
Retro: Orson Welles War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast
On Halloween in 1938, actor/writer/producer Orson Welles did a radio adaptation in to the 19th century book, War of the Worlds. The production suggested to a nationwide CBS Radio audience that Martians had invaded America. Welles opened the program with a disclaimer and followed up with one two-thirds through the program that this was a production.
While there are reports of panic, it that has been mostly attributed to lore. Ironically, it wasn’t radio that was to blame, it was the ensuing newspaper coverage of the radio production, according to a duo of writers from Slate.com.
“Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted,” (Pooley & Socolow, 2013).
Interested in reading the news of the day? Click here for the 1938 New York Daily News article following the broadcast.
Incidences like these only raise skepticism among already-questioning publics. This isn’t necessarily a cause for concern for the media industry, but it should be taken as a warning signal.
Modern-day assertions that news is “fake” parallel with those of newspapers in 1930s America that radio couldn’t be trusted.
A 2016 survey from Pew Research indicated that fake news causes confusion among citizens.
Communication is key, especially during crisis. In both cases, it is evident that “communication is one of the fundamental tools of emergency management” (Simona, Goldberg, & Adini, 2015, p. 610). Like push notifications in the modern example and radio in the retro example, both were considered newer (emerging) forms of media in their day. While it is important for the industry to embrace change to remain relevant, it is more important to embrace the responsible use of emerging technologies through the use of strategic thinking of what are the possible outcomes.
The misuse of any communication channel can erode the public trust. In both examples, the Federal Communication Commission weighed in and issued responses to a questioning public.
That is why it is crucial that those working in communications-related fields use all the tools at their disposal to find appropriate sourcing and provide corroborating evidence of the information being shared.
There is no secret to this success; the foundational skills which have served journalists well will continue to do so well into the future.
Pooley, J., & Socolow, M. J. (2013, October 28). The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic. Retrieved January 14, 2018, from http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/history/2013/10/orson_welles_war_of_the_worlds_panic_myth_the_infamous_radio_broadcast_did.html
Simon, T., Goldberg, A., & Adini, B. (2015). Socializing in emergencies—A review of the use of social media in emergency situations. International Journal of Information Management, 609-619. doi:https://ac.els-cdn.com/S0268401215000638/1-s2.0-S0268401215000638-main.pdf?_tid=b3bd74ca-f98a-11e7-858d-00000aacb35d&acdnat=1515976157_1245c9557d422f6c388d9f02b742870
Taylor, M., Wells, G., Howell, G., & Raphael, B. (2012). The role of social media as psychological first aid as a support to community resilience building. The Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 27(1), 20–26.