It’s not scientific to say Kilauea has ‘wrath.’ Why did the media?

When it comes to weather phenomena and natural disasters, the media often adds drama. It does so with spin: vague, subjective or emotional language that sensationalizes what would otherwise be objectively observable physical events. You wouldn’t see spin in a scientific paper, and you rarely see it in advisories from meteorological or government agencies. So why have it in the media?

While the coverage of the eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano hasn’t been as spun as, say, that of hurricanes Irma and Maria last year, there was added drama nonetheless. The most obvious examples in this analysis were NPR’s headline and lead paragraph (below). Sentences like these contributed to NPR’s spin rating of 49 percent — the most spun of the four articles analyzed.

Kilauea’s Wrath Threatens Power Plant — And Hawaii's Most Powerful Industry

In the weeks since the Kilauea volcano began belching lava into Hawaii's residential areas, the fiery flow has destroyed dozens of structures and covered scores of acres on the Big Island. But authorities fear its destructive reach could ravage at least two more cornerstones of the state: its power supply and, a little less tangibly, its all-important tourism industry.

Notice how the emotional language coupled with vague terms can shape your understanding of the situation in a way that inspires alarm. Of course, the eruption and its proximity to the power plant present real dangers, and the lava could reach the wells. However, news outlets could describe those risks with data, without the spin.

Second to NPR, CBS News’ article was 48 percent spun. Here are a couple of examples from CBS; the first is the article’s headline:

Hawaii volcano lava flows into power plant, sparking fears of deadly gas release

Flammable liquids have already been removed and the wells have been filled with cold water, but won't be plugged until today. A worst-case scenario could be catastrophic.

This type of language could inspire alarm, if not fear, which is not useful or efficient in an emergency — the same was true for the Austin bombings coverage. Instead, in cases like these, the media could serve as an accurate messenger and educator. By providing precise data about the eruption and potential risks, and sticking only to the facts, outlets could help readers make better-informed decisions, especially if they’re residents on the island. The media’s added drama just gets in the way.

The Knife’s analysis of the Hurricane Irma coverage offers a valuable contrast. That analysis compared three news articles with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s advisory — the latter earned a 100 percent integrity rating, while the outlets scored between 41 and 50 percent. The advisory was precise, informative and offered instructions on how to proceed during the storm. The media articles, on the other hand, weren’t as complete as the advisory and, again, were more entertaining and fear-inspiring than informative.

Consider the impact news reporting could have on the world if it wasn’t sensationalized.

Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media