Fear-Mongering Headline Writers

Reno has been shaken by a swarm of earthquakes over the last few weeks, but it’s not as bad as the headlines may lead you to believe. For example, I take umbrage with this headline that appeared on an Associated Press story today:

Reno Urged to Prepare for Worse as Earthquakes Continue

Further, the lead paragraph states that “Scientists urged residents of northern Nevada’s largest city to prepare for a bigger event…”

Really? That’s funny, because the quote in the story that would support that headline says this:

“A magnitude 6 quake wouldn’t be a scientific surprise,” John Anderson, director of the seismological lab, said Saturday. “We certainly hope residents are taking the threat seriously after last night.”

But Anderson stressed there was no way to predict what would happen, and said the sequence of quakes also could end without a major one.

All they’re really saying is that, like anyone who lives in a seismically active region, Reno residents should be prepared for a big earthquake. They should have already been prepared for a big earthquake, and they should continue to be prepared for a big earthquake even if the current quake swarm subsides.

Here’s another quote from an earlier AP story that also emphasizes that scientists just don’t know what will happen:

“If the pattern continues we may be looking at a larger event” in the Reno area, Smith said Friday. “We wouldn’t be surprised to see it (swarm) end at any time and it also wouldn’t be surprising to see a large earthquake. The bottom line is we don’t know what will happen.”

Here’s another quote from another AP story. I can practically hear whoever wrote the statement wondering out loud how he or she can write this without the media misrepresenting the risk:

“The persistence of this particular earthquake sequence slightly increases the probability for a significant earthquake in west Reno,” said a statement issued by the Nevada Seismological Laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“However, the occurrence of additional earthquake activity in the Mogul area cannot be predicted or forecast,” it added.

Yet, because of the scary headlines— which appeared today on very similar stories from yesterday that had less scary headlines—my phone is ringing off the hook with calls from concerned relatives, and I know of at least one person who has fled Reno in fear.

I know fear sells, but whoever is writing these headlines, please chill out. Remember that you work for a news organization, not a tabloid.

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4 Responses to Fear-Mongering Headline Writers

  1. Michael says:

    Let’s see…On one pan of the scales, Public Interest. On the other one, Sales Mandate. Do you get the impression that the latter has been gaining mass for some time now?

  2. Wolfy says:

    What’s even funnier is all the people in CA who are laughing at us right now. Do people in Reno know what “earthquake clips” are? cause we used them for years in So Cal.

    Truth is there would have to be a pretty intense earthquake to be of much risk to life in Reno. as long as you’re not in a high rise… So ANY fearmongering isn’t really called for.

    All they need to say is, “Make sure your china is secure and your book shelves are fitted with “earthquake clips…”

    Still, if you have concerns, watch this educational video: http://www.flickr.com/photos/96215201@N00/2442894977/

    -M

  3. Mignon says:

    Yeah, sadly, I have to agree with Michael that the sales mandate has been gaining on public interest for a long time now. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call it out when we see it. I continue to expect better from the media.

  4. Gideon says:

    Are you really surprised, though?