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Wee gripes: Crying wolf

Written By: - Date published: 10:24 am, October 2nd, 2009 - 10 comments
Categories: Media - Tags: ,

I want to make clear this post isn’t about the relief effort in Samoa and Tonga. I think that has been well handled.

It was good to see Winnie Laban and Chris Carter, both MPs with links to Samoa, were sent out there immediately to work with our diplomats in assessing the situation and are now getting the information back to the ministers. Cross-party cooperation is appropriate in this situation.

It’s good that Key’s going to get out there in a few days once he gets back from Florida. I don’t think he will treat it as just another photo op.

But this is wee gripes and my wee gripe is about how the media handled the tsunami alert. It was irresponsible of them to over-hype it the way they did. If you listen to the various interviews on Morning Report all the official advice right from the start was ‘This is not a threat to New Zealand. Just don’t go down to the beach to watch.’ The only official who stuffed up was the guy on Breakfast, but the effect of what he said was the same ‘there’s no tsunami threat to NZ’

Yet the online media in particular, which is where a lot of people not turn to for up to the minute info in an emergency, hyped and hyped the thing. Breathless reports of where and when it would strike New Zealand. Failing to mention it would be small, if noticeable, and on a low tide. It was almost as if the media set out to create panic.

Almost worse than hyping the thing, the media actually got taken in by the hype. Apparently, newsrooms in Auckland were emptied out with everyone sent to the beaches to cover the waves.

How will the public react next time we see ‘Tsunami heading our way’ in screaming bold on nzherald.co.nz? Will we remember how the media cried wolf this time and ignore them?

Next time, it might be the real thing. Thanks to the media’s irresponsibility, people might not heed the warnings.

10 comments on “Wee gripes: Crying wolf ”

  1. rocky 1

    Good post – but:

    Almost worse than hyping the thing, the media actually got taken in by the hype. Apparently, newsrooms in Auckland were emptied out with everyone sent to the beaches to cover the waves.

    If the alert was real and serious, do you think everyone would still be sent to the beaches to cover the waves?

  2. JohnDee 2

    I have to say that i find all the blame being attributed to Civil Defense also to be more than a bit offensive. I found the information supplied from National Radio (listening to Kathryn Ryan) to be more than adequate.
    The information was clear and precise and was updated regularly. If as you say above, some of the news agencies over-hyped the situation you are probably correct.
    It seems that these days people need other people to think for them, make decisions for them and if necessary, whip their arses as well.
    I am starting to despair that people these days have no common sense, or not enough to actually figure out that “If” a tidal wave was going to arrive it was not going to be very large.

    • Lanthanide 2.1

      On the contrary, there’s really no way for NZ to determine how large a tsunami is going to be until it gets here. So far all the tsunamis that have arrived at NZ that I am aware of have been less than a metre in height, but it’s not inconceivable that a larger one could end up here from a distant event such as the Samoa quake. The magnitude of an earthquake does not directly correspond with the size of a tsunami wave, and the size of the wave can be different in different directions. It all depends on how much the crust under the ocean moves, and in what way: upwards, downwards, sideways, which direction and by how much.

      However in this particular case, the Hawaii report did indicate that the wave would probably be a metre or less, which does generally not pose any danger except to beaches, beach-front properties and sheltered harbour, so I think the advice of people on the east coast to seek higher ground was rather hyped.

      Finally, there were some reports that in a couple of sheltered harbours in the North Island the tsunami did cause some potential harm. The word ‘tsunami’ itself actually means “harbour waves”, as in the waves that are amplified by the geography of a harbour to cause damage, as opposed to those waves that hit an exposed beach.

  3. Scott 3

    To be fair to the news media, in the earlier stages of the scare it was difficult to get much info out of Civil Defence and the picture was initially confusing. It was only later in the morning that it became clear the threat to NZ was non-existent.

  4. snoozer 4

    Less than an hour after the tsunami struck Samoa, before 9am, there was a scientist on radio NZ saying that it had been 1-1.5m there (which he described as small, of course, for low-lying areas it still went quite a way in shore). He made clear it wasn’t a danger to nz.

    The internet sites were still in full panic the public mode until half past ten.

  5. randal 5

    I find that the politicisation of national disasters leaves me cold. these people should not be there in an official capacity nor make political capital out of their presence. Names of the deceased should be read out by a senior news reader not a senior whip from some party. all these king canutes…bahh humbug.

  6. BLiP 6

    C’mon – its good and very cheap copy. Far more economnic to fill the first half of the news with “live” reports from empty buildings and beaches that “just hours ago” were buzzing with urgency than actually investigate anything. And, gee – look at the newspapers – huge pictures splashed everywhere rather than actual copy. Its a media feast.

  7. randal 7

    of course. talking about it is much easier than doing something. the meedja will be tired of it by next monday.

  8. Maynard J 8

    I am in two minds. Underreport and something bad happens and “Wah – why weren’t we told”. Overhype and nothing happens and you get what we have here (..is failure…to communicate…).

    A mitigant is to get better channels for transmission of accurate information. As soon as it was clear that there was no threat, everyone should have been told.

    The problem is that basically until it happens, there is no way to be sure. Tsunami do not propagate equally and in equal directions. A 9.0 earthquake could make a 30cm tsinami, and a 6.5 could generate 5m tsunami.

    The Boxing Day tsunami was generated by an earthquake that caused an upthrust in the sea floor. I forget the exact dimensions, but I believe that the sea floor was lifted by over 10 meters, very rapidly, along 30km of fault. That is basically a giant wave machine. Without that upthrust, the tsunami would have been minimal.

    So better to be safe than sorry, but avoid scaring the horses. A massive dilemma that CD faces and is not really acknowledged frequently.

  9. Steve 9

    Some of those who went down to the beach were those who have lost faith in the Civil Defense. Time and time again they have been unreliable and any information released is confusing. The infrastructure is there but it is run by retired Scoutmasters on an ego trip.
    Now if I was in Samoa and wanted to send information to NZ the logical place would be the Media. CD only have an answerphone telling you to ring your local Council. The Council advises you to ring CD!!!!!!!
    As usual NZ is the laughing stock of the world

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