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How the media can make or break our society's encounter with Y2K

by Tom Atlee

NOTE: I am not a professional journalist. Since writing this, I have
become aware of a broader dialogue among professional journalists
about some of the very issues raised in this article. I hope that
professional journalists who are far more qualified than I am will
grab this torch and carry it as it should be carried, addressing their
colleagues as only they can. We need the media to do its job well.

It is widely acknowledged that no one actually knows what's going to happen with the Year 2000 problem (Y2K). We've never faced anything quite like it. How does one report on a situation that may end up either catastrophic or barely noticeable?

From an objective standpoint, there may be no fully satisfactory answer to that question. However, more than objectivity is at work here. Public perception of Y2K will play a decisive role in how it turns out. The obvious example is bank runs. If people panic about their money, they could crash the financial system, regardless of computer problems. And that's only one example.

Some officials have therefore chosen to reassure the public that everything will be OK. But with contrary evidence so readily available, the credibility of such official assurances sinks below its usual abysmal state. Each new statement only serves to increase public skepticism and uneasiness.

Under these circumstances, how the media reports on Y2K can make or break our society. Once panic starts, it can be very hard to stop. Without abandoning objectivity, journalists need to think about responsibility, as well. We all need to ask: What journalistic activities will enhance our society's capacity to deal constructively with Y2K -- and which will trigger chaos?

You might consider that Y2K can fall under "risk-management" coverage -- a vital function of the media. Bad coverage increases risk; good coverage decreases risk.

Let's consider some of the responsible angles journalists can take in covering Y2K. Luckily there have been quite a few Y2K stories that reflect and support the many positive Y2K efforts. Such responsible media have tried to do the following:

a) Provide information to readers/viewers in a way that helps them make up their own minds about:
-- what is being done about Y2K in their community, state, nation and the world
-- what a wide range of responsible experts are saying about Y2K
-- how to prepare themselves, their organizations, and their communities
-- how to help their children, friends and families deal with Y2K
-- how to deal with psychological, relationship, organizational, etc., problems that come up with Y2K
-- where to go for more information, help or other resources

b) Treat Y2K as an ongoing story of interest to all people.

c) Help people (especially local government officials) understand that Y2K is not just a "computer problem." They need to be concerned not only with the Y2K compliance of computers and microchips in their immediate domain, but with the larger social impacts of Y2K bugs that don't get fixed -- including the international ramifications and local community possibilities.

d) Help make the distinction between Y2K and millennial dynamics so that citizens don't get distracted by irrelevant millennial debates. (Ironically, Y2K isn't a millennial problem at all, but rather a century problem and would probably have happened in 1900, if we'd had computers in 1870!)

e) Bring out the best in the human spirit by featuring human interest stories about individuals, groups and communities who
-- work well with others on Y2K (especially with people who are different from themselves)
-- help others, especially vulnerable people -- the very young, the elderly, the disabled, the poor, etc.
-- take notable initiatives or leadership (especially if they're otherwise "ordinary" or are using their special skills, status or profession in an unusual way, such as a high school social studies teacher helping her students research the special needs and resources of their neighbors)
-- overcome common obstacles relating to Y2K (such as coming to terms with the uncertainty of it, or going from being a couch potato to organizing a community garden)
-- use Y2K to improve their communities or the world
-- do interesting things with Y2K (such as high school kids making a website of Y2K-related games for other kids, or the family in Spokane that practiced living without electricity and running water for a day)
-- propose things that would help everyone get through Y2K better (such as pairing up rich and poor "sister neighborhoods").

f) Investigate neglect and abuse of power in business, government, etc., regarding Y2K (such as failure to ensure nuclear safety, or Y2K profiteering, or divisive political gamesmanship at the expense of the public welfare). The next step is not to pillory the powerholders, but to publicly challenge them to stop messing around and take positive action that serves the public good. Better yet, highlight the SYSTEMIC problems -- like short term thinking -- that everyone can address.

g) Help the public learn useful Y2K-related lessons, such as
-- how to face their Y2K fears and move on to constructive action
-- what we've been doing collectively that led to this Y2K problem in the first place
-- how individually sensible actions (like taking your money out of the bank) can generate disastrous social phenomena (like bank runs), while shared or communal preparations can help everyone do well through Y2K.
-- how to prepare in the face of radical uncertainty by nurturing good relationships with neighbors, a wide range of contingency plans, a healthy spirituality, a sense of humor, and lots of creativity, flexibility and tolerance in the face of interruptions and obstacles.

h) Look ahead to likely problems (such as bank runs, panic buying, failures in entitlement programs, etc.) and play an active role in preventing or preparing for them.

i) Editorially advocate public policies that will protect communities (such as the warehousing of excess grain in cities, or ensuring that water systems work no matter what).

j) Acknowledge that all of us -- including reporters, editors and officials -- live in communities that may be impacted by Y2K. We may have relatives or friends in large Northern cities which could be particularly effected. Our neighbors may be buying guns or taking all their money out of the bank. We are all potentially vulnerable. It is time for all of us to contact our common humanity and act from that common ground for the good of all of us -- and not to act as if this has nothing to do with us, or as if we can make it alone.

k) Sponsor (or at least creatively publicize) community forums that:
-- air diverse perspectives,
-- clarify the issues,
-- inform and engage citizens
-- elicit community wisdom (see,
-- involve significant stakeholders on behalf of the community.

l) Work with (and challenge) other stakeholders (including other media) to play positive roles in their communities, in the nation and in the world.

Good local coverage of Y2K can actually be an asset to a media outlet. Gary Gach notes that "the community preparedness coalitions, and their revitalization of communities and the people and businesses in them is a story that media has a competitive interest in. If you compare media coverage of international issues, you see a similarity (clips, feeds, etc.) [in each media outlet]; same for national issues. It is local coverage where each media outlet has their own stamp (anchor, pundit, columnist, etc)." Furthermore, Gach continues, "Media can profit by not only their coverage but also their participation in coalitions with local businesses, nonprofits and government for Teach-Ins, Preparedness Days, Y2K Volunteers, etc." (email note, 2/15/99)

Unfortunately, as valuable as it is to everyone, this useful kind of story and media role has so far been the exception rather than the rule. Many recent stories have actually undermined positive Y2K efforts. We don't need more stories that:

a) Make fun of people trying to do positive work on Y2K -- whether they're trying to fix computers or prepare individuals and communities. We want to encourage creative initiatives, not stigmatize them.

b) Focus primarily on extremists. Extremists are (by definition) a minority. Focusing on them causes people to think that Y2K is an issue for crazy people and not for ordinary, sensible folks like themselves. This self-fulfilling formulation abandons the whole field to the crazies, which could prove dangerous, indeed.

c) Act as if the only thing that can happen during Y2K is EITHER massive disruptions OR business as usual. The overwhelming consensus is that no one knows for sure what will happen. Dichotomizing the issue only makes it harder for everyone to think clearly about the most likely scenarios between the two extremes.

d) Write off public fears as irrational. There are irrational elements in nearly all fears. However, in many cases -- including Y2K -- there are also very good reasons to be afraid. If people can't talk through their fears, they'll get stuck in them, acting them out in weird ways which interfere with sensible action.

e) Act as if Y2K is primarily a millennial problem, comparable to the apocalyptic panics at the end of the first millennium. While millennialism is certainly a factor for some people, mainstream experts have confirmed that Y2K is a real, objective problem that just happens to co-incide with a new millennium. Equating Y2K to millennialism makes it harder for people to face it for what it is and deal with it soberly.

f) Treat Y2K as a weird, occasional story. Y2K is, in fact, a dramatic, multi-faceted story of ongoing relevance to the vast majority of people. Only editors who -- in the closing days of 1998 -- had the guts to say, "We already did a story on Monica and the impeachment -- we're not going to do another one this week!" can legitimately protest, "We had a Y2K story last month" or "Our readers have already heard enough about Y2K."

g) See Y2K primarily in terms of conflict, such as between Republicans and Democrats, or between rich and poor, or between technophiles and Luddites. Y2K is a shared problem that will respond best to respectful dialogue and collaborative action among all of us. Divisiveness for the sake of journalistic drama will get us nowhere -- probably very fast and unpleasantly.

h) Publish information under the guise of "objectivity" whose primary role is to increase panic. For example, a number of recent surveys have claimed that a significant number of Americans plan to take most of their money out of the bank. The impact of this data could be disastrous. The average reader may well decide that they, too, should take their money out -- and do it sooner than all those other people, because there won't be enough cash to go around. While the original survey may be objectively accurate, it is extremely dangerous to give such negative news more coverage than all the positive things Y2K-concerned people are doing to help each other and their communities.

i) Just dig out the dirt. Many media pride themselves in looking for dirt. While this can serve a useful social function (especially when aimed at power abusers), it can also evoke in readers and viewers a pessimistic spectatorism, a cynical passivity that undermines citizenship. The alternative is not Pollyanna positivism, but rather evocative stories that engage people in improving the conditions around them.

j) Accept the word of government and business officials about how everything is going to be done in time, everything's going to be fine, without even asking obvious questions like "Can you give us a list of the NON-mission critical systems in the Department of Health and Human Services?" or "Have you verified that all of your suppliers and leading customers are going to be compliant?" This isn't to prove that they're lying and everything's going to fall apart. It is to ensure that they provide the public with vital information. The next question should always be "What are you doing to help your community (or, at least, your employees and customers) prepare?"

One thing should be clear here: We're not talking about abandoning journalistic standards.

"It is important not to dismiss the underlying principles of journalism but their poor practice. How would Edward R. Murrow have covered Y2K? Or would a journalist of today reporting back then spend all his or her time trying to present the Axis point of view in all of [their] pieces and then consider it a job well done? How is it that the smart people of the press haven't developed a personal investment in what might happen to them, their families, their neighbors, their country, their world? How is it they think that thinking things through is somehow taking sides? For whatever reason -- denial, time constraints, laziness, fear of embarrassment, lack of important people saying this is important, the cool of the unconcerned -- whatever -- the media aren't working to develop the right questions and haven't been able to think through the issue in all its confounding complexity. Y2K hasn't been elevated to an issue of national concern for which there is only one side -- be safe rather than sorry." -- Will Duggan, co-developer of a series on Y2K for national public television.

There is, after all, plenty of positive Y2K-related activity to report.

"The basic choice for the media is to focus less on the zany and outlandish stories of a few individuals which are of little lasting value, and choose instead to serve the public interest and tell the stories that will have real value to people trying to understand what they can do. Those stories are out there, and they make good copy. Underneath the hype and the apocalyptic fear, there are a whole LOT of people acting with extraordinary decency and neighborly concern, working to see that their communities work through this problem and come out stronger for it." -- Paul Andrews of The United Religions Initiative, January 27, 1999

How journalists handle Y2K may be the most decisive factor in whether our country comes apart or comes together during the next year. This is not business-as-usual. This is an extraordinary historical moment, and the decisions of journalists will, in more cases than we may want to admit, make the difference between life and death. I suggest, with Joan Konner, Publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, that it is once again time to see "journalism as a way of participating creatively and constructively in the life of our society and our times ... as a public service and public trust." (September/October 1998)

Please invite all journalists you know to consider this well.

Tom Atlee
February 22, 1999