Sunday, February 3, 2013

Crisis


One of the biggest problems facing the modern journalist is how to effectively report on the never-ending stream of civilization-threatening crises that punctuate modern life at a rate remarkably well tied to news cycles. Luckily my position as an uninformed layman gives me the perfect qualifications to help out (see point 5) with my handy six point Crisis Reporting Plan.

1. Find a crisis. You may think that something as bad as a crisis would be easy to spot, but not so, some crises are so bad that nobody else even notices them. There are many types of crisis that it is your duty to report on: bureaucratic incompetence, a politician saying something, corporate fat cats doing anything that results in customers paying more money, or there might even be people in boats on or around the Australian coast. Most important of all, there may be several inches of column space with nothing to fill them, the greatest crisis of all.
Sidebar for sports writers: did a team lose on the weekend? Was it their second consecutive loss? If so you have a coaching crisis ready to go. Even better, did a player express an opinion on Twitter? Clear the back page, sounds like you've got a furore ready to go.

2. Call it a crisis. It is critically important that people be made aware that this is a crisis. If you don't tell them with words like "Crisis", "Scandal" and "Bungle" people may doubt whether it is newsworthy, never mind the disaster you know it is. If all else fails and you can't convince people that society is facing a serious, crippling disaster, the next best option is to call it an impending crisis. You need almost no corroborating evidence to suggest that something is "about to" reach boiling point. It also has the advantage of being open to follow up stories.

3. Put a human(ish) face on the crisis. It is easier for people to understand the nature and importance of a crisis if you can illustrate it with the story of a person's (or cute animal where appropriate) specific experience. The person you have might seem on the surface to be an entitled asshole, or someone whose rudimentary grip of societal norms has resulted in a problem of their own making, but keep to the negative elements of the story and try to involve sick, or at least pallid-looking, children if possible.

4. Abuse Mathematics. If there's one thing you can rely on in a crisis, it's that people will be more worried if you can back in with solid numbers. If you don't have solid numbers, shaky numbers and fast footwork can be used as a substitute. Among the useful techniques available are: blurring the difference between a percentage increase and percentage point increase to inflate changes, poorly labelled graphs with condensed or logarithmic scales, not mentioning errors bars, mixing percentages with raw numbers, and of course using the mean where it is completely inappropriate. Not strictly a mathematical dodge, it can also be useful to compare similar but different statistics, for example compare the number of fatal motor vehicle accidents in one year with the number of fatalities in another year. It's an obvious distinction, but say it fast enough and nobody will notice.

5. Vox Pop. Everybody knows that experts in the field and the people directly involved can't be trusted, if they could there wouldn't be a crisis in the first place now would there? The only thing to do is take to streets and find out what the average punter thinks. It might look like a complex sociopolitical issue but Gary, 43, from Claremont is just the guy to clear it up. The advent of social media means that you won't even have to go to all the effort of going outside any more. Just ask viewers/readers to tell you they think using #endofsocietyasweknowit and publish the most inflammatory responses that come through.

6. Repeat. Good work, you've made people aware of the crisis and created a public outcry. But that was yesterday, there's a new front page today. It may be a crisis but you can't expect people to pay attention to it for two days in a row. Time to find the next one.

If you make sure you cover the six points above you will not only be able to turn a molehill into a mountain, you will be able to convince people that the mountain was created by government power brokers and funded through a slush fund that took hard earned money straight out of the pockets of the hard-working taxpayer. Sure, it may not be entirely accurate but it sure sounds awful.

Next week: competition.

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