March 29, 2009

Teachable moments and the responsibility of journalists

Right now, lots of people are thinking about flooding in North Dakota. It is the perfect time to look at the dynamics of water on flat land, the efforts over the last twenty years to prevent flooding through construction of precautionary dams and catch basins, and the history of legislation and ordinances authorizing developments in low-lying areas. Right now, everybody’s looking, taking the time. Six months from now, the re-scheduled rodeo in the Fargo dome will be the big news.

What do we hear about, mostly? Exhausted people pass sandbags down a line, doing the best work they have ever done in their lives. People fear for their houses, are grateful for the support of their friends and neighbors and for the help of outsiders who donate their labor to the effort. This is genuinely something to celebrate, something people need to know about, for the good of their souls. Only a very brave, perhaps a very reckless, journalist would introduce doubt or despair into the story now. And objective, background, big-picture reporting often turns up the evidence for doubt and despair.

Nevertheless, it hit me wrong when, on the Newshour the other night, I saw the exhausted Fargo mayor interviewed about, essentially, physics: what happens to sandbags when they get cold. He didn’t know. Somebody at any one of 50 universities knows. It seems very likely that somebody someplace has been studying the physics of dams and sandbags, the dynamics of the northern rivers, disaster intervention strategies, legislation and lobbying around development projects in endangered areas -- for twenty years already. Imagine a world where journalists mobilized the scholars and scientists at our great institutions right away, when disasters happened, getting them into intense conversation about what is going on. Suppose they then reported that conversation as news. Maybe, in that world, the teachable moments wouldn’t go to waste. But, in that world, scholars would become, to their embarrassment, part of the story. Their pronouncements would affect the morale of the people filling sandbags. That’s indeed a great risk to take, when issues are not clear, when expert opinion has to be tentative, when morale matters.

On the other side, people on the sandbag lines keep saying, ‘We’ve been here before, lots of times.’ Until the heightened attention brought about by crises gets channeled into thought and imagination and reconstruction, the disasters will just keep coming.

When I think about the enormous public investment in university research, and when I reflect on the silence of university people in times of crisis – that is, in those times when new proposals would actually get a hearing, I think of Abraham Lincoln’s request to his general, something like, ‘If you are not going to use your army, may I borrow it?’

Posted by shea0017 at March 29, 2009 2:24 PM