Friday, December 30, 2005

Michael Crichton Speech On Media Accuracy

In early November, Michael Crichton gave a speech at the Washington Center for Complexity and Public Policy concerning media reporting accuracy. Actually, that wasn't the advertised topic of his speech. His speech is titled "Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management in the 21st Century." The text of the speech, along with images of important slides, can be found on Crichton's web site. Its main focus is how the reporting about environmental concerns is fear-based. But my take-away from reading the speech (and I highly suggest you do--the whole thing is fascinating) was about media accuracy.

Explaining why he wrote his book, State of Fear, Crichton says:
The book really began in 1998, when I set out to write a novel about a global disaster. In the course of my preparation, I rather casually reviewed what had happened in Chernobyl, since that was the worst manmade disaster in recent times that I knew about.

What I discovered stunned me. Chernobyl was a tragic event, but nothing remotely close to the global catastrophe I imagined. About 50 people had died in Chernobyl, roughly the number of Americans that die every day in traffic accidents. I don’t mean to be gruesome, but it was a setback for me. You can’t write a novel about a global disaster in which only 50 people die.

Undaunted, I began to research other kinds of disasters that might fulfill my novelistic requirements. That’s when I began to realize how big our planet really is, and how resilient its systems seem to be. Even though I wanted to create a fictional catastrophe of global proportions, I found it hard to come up with a credible example.
When I read this, I must admit I was shocked to hear that only 50 people died at Chernobyl. The source for this number is a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which can be found in a large PDF file here. So why was my impression of Chernobyl so wrong? Perhaps it was the media.
The initial reports in 1986 claimed 2,000 dead, and an unknown number of future deaths and deformities occurring in a wide swath extending from Sweden to the Black Sea. As the years passed, the size of the disaster increased; by 2000, the BBC and New York Times estimated 15,000-30,000 dead, and so on…

Now, to report that 15,000-30,000 people have died, when the actual number is 56, represents a big error.


But, of course, you think, we’re talking about radiation: what about long-term consequences? Unfortunately here the media reports are even less accurate.

The chart shows estimates as high as 3.5 million, or 500,000 deaths, when the actual number of delayed deaths is less than 4,000.
As I said up top, there's a lot more to read in the full text of the speech that is quite eye-opening. But the section on Chernobyl was the most intriguing to me.