Saturday, March 29, 2014

Today in making stuff up

For you fans of how the public understanding of natural disasters is created, here's the upper-left ear from the Drudge Report (still leading with Friday's Los Angeles earthquake as of this writing*). It's standard Drudge, meaning "links allegedly related to the top story, with ellipses," and we're especially interested in the third and fifth ones, which (ahem) appear to link to the (kaff) same story.

The first of those is true-ish, in that it pretty closely resembles something that a not-quite-accurately identified person said:

Jones said Friday’s quake was 10 times larger than the March 17 magnitude-4.4 quake near Encino. She added that every quake has a chance of leading to something bigger.

“Every earthquake has a 5 percent chance of being followed by something larger. The fact that this had a foreshock doesn’t particularly increase that probability,” she said.

The speaker is a researcher and risk-reduction adviser, not really an official, but at least she almost said what she's quoted as saying. Standard news practice calls for an ellipsis in "chance of ... something larger," but there are folks who wouldn't insist, on grounds that the four-word version doesn't change the meaning of the seven-word version, and who are we to judge anyway?

It's the bigger set of words that aren't there that cause trouble. Discourse analysis** likes to look at words that aren't there, because they're an indication of what kind of context the speaker is counting on the audience to supply: in this case, the difference between "OMG there's a chance of something LARGER!!1!!1!!!" and "Well, there's always one chance in 20 of something larger."

The next ("Panic ...") is interesting if you keep up with disaster mythology: stuff that people seem to be conditioned to expect in disasters, and thus stuff that journalists write about even if it isn't happening. Panic, for example, is actually kind of rare. So is looting. In that light, would you like to guess how many times "panic" is mentioned in the 349-word story Drudge links to, or would you rather just look at the key to the right of the 9 on your laptop and draw an informed conclusion?

I don't mean to be rude here. We shouldn't infer that there was no panic simply because the panic story doesn't mention panic (if nothing else, the source station might have written the story through without changing the link). At least we should see how the Fair 'n' Balanced Network is handling the story:

Despite the evacuations, Friday night's magnitude-5.1 quake centered about 25 miles south of downtown Los Angeles mostly frayed nerves.

The Los Angeles Times reported that residents in La Habra posted pictures on social media showing broken vases, topped furniture and other items scattered in their homes.

Power outages were reported in some neighborhoods near the epicenter, according to the report.

Broken glass, gas leaks, a water main break and a rockslide were reported near the epicenter, according to Twitter updates from local authorities.

"A lot of the glass in the place shook like crazy," he said. "It started like a roll and then it started shaking like crazy. Everybody ran outside, hugging each other in the streets."

If you thought journalism was going to hell -- yes. Fox is quoting what other people saw on Facebook, and there's no antecedent anywhere for "he." And the closest we are to panic is -- people running outside and hugging each other? Let's try a quote in which "he" actually refers to a previously named person:

"We felt a really good jolt. It was a long rumble and it just didn't feel like it would end," he told The Associated Press by phone. "Right in the beginning it shook really hard, so it was a little unnerving. People got quiet and started bracing themselves by holding on to each other. It was a little scary."

Which not only makes sense, it corresponds to most accounts of what people actually do while journalists are yelling at each other about why they can't find any looting or panic.

I don't see it being a major surprise to any regular visitors here that Drudge makes stuff up. This entry in the log of disaster coverage is interesting because it gets to the question of why Drudge makes stuff up. That's pretty clear when party preferences are on the table, or when scary brown people are doing stuff that might affect party preferences. Here, it could be that Drudge World is simply a happier place when people act the way people do in the movies. Or it could be that panic is the preferred state of affairs; given enough panic, people will eventually figure out that the Kenyan is responsible and, you know, do the right thing.

Anyway, given Drudge's evident skills as a fabricator, maybe you big news organizations out there would do us all the favor of ignoring him for the next three or four election cycles.

* 8:10 p.m. Eastern, if you're scoring along at home.
** Yes, I'm procrastinating on a paper; no, it's not a discourse analysis, but there's another one that sort of is. Now be quiet and watch the damn game.

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