Newsrooms vs. the Volcano

Over in Geneva, the EBU Radio News Conference 2010 is underway, and I’m watching from afar via the wonders of Twitter.

Late yesterday, Michael Good of RTE talked about how they covered the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and, finding that the “public wanted more than radio programmes could give”, had to turn to the web and networked journalism to improve coverage. Charlie Beckett reports:

In the final session it was made clear by speakers such as Michael Good of RTE that mainstream media can’t cope with big complex crisis stories such as the volcanic ash story: ‘ the public wanted more than radio programmes could give’

RTE responded by using social media connected to their coverage to fill the gaps and to tell the micro as well as the macro story. To provide context as well as drama, information as well as narrative. As Michael put it, it showed how social media has to be at the heart of the newsroom.

Brett Spencer also reported that “SWR say if it happened again right now they would approach the science and the experts with more caution” and “Richard Clark of the BBC Newsroom says an awful lot of experts got airtime who actually didn’t know very much.”

As someone who followed Eyjafjallajökull’s progress from the beginning of the first ‘tourist eruption’ right the way through to the final gasps of the phreatomagmatic eruption (i.e. the big explosive bit), I can say with some certainty that the mainstream media did a pretty appalling job of choosing experts to talk about the eruption. Often, they chose to speak to industry representatives, such as union leaders or airline owners, who knew very little about the eruption itself but had very strong views on what they thought reality ought to be. They also had a vested interest in portraying the situation in a particular light.

I was particularly disgusted by people like Richard Branson, who threw a strop because he thought the flight ban was unnecessary. The BBC reported Branson being either disingenuous or dangerously ignorant:

Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson meanwhile told the BBC that he believed governments would be unlikely to impose a blanket ban again.

“I think if they’d sent up planes immediately to see whether the ash was actually too dangerous to fly through or to look for corridors where it wasn’t very thick, I think that we would have been back flying a lot sooner,” he said.

This fundamentally misrepresents the monitoring that was going on at the time (planes were being sent up to look at the ash cloud) and, more importantly, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of ash clouds. They are not a uniform blanket of ash floating through the air, but a constantly changing area of high and low ash densities: Any ‘corridor’ there today probably wouldn’t be there tomorrow.

But in the scramble for experts, no one flubbed quite as badly as the Wall Street Journal and CNN, who both featured Robert “R.B.” Trombley, a self-styled volcanologist who turned out to be not quite the expert they had assumed.

Going back to #RNews10, Charlie Beckett said, “Yes the volcano exposed limits of MSM & value of social media bt it also exposed lack of data transparency from airlines, govt etc” to which Mike Mullane replied, “Beckett: Don’t beat yourselves up. There was failure on the part of governments and meteorologists to provide data for journalists”. And, in a related point, Andy Carvin Tweeted, “Don’t think anyone mentioned maps, though, whether newsroom generated, user-generated or both. Were there any?”

Mike and Charlie’s assertions are only true for the UK and the air travel industry: The airlines were, unsurprisingly, entirely opaque. The UK Met Office had some data, particularly on ash measurement and predictions, but could have done a much better job of communicating what they were doing and providing data. That’s a problem they seriously need to fix: They opened themselves up to undeserved criticism because no one had any idea what they were actually doing. The Civil Aviation Authority and the National Air Traffic Services should also be soundly criticised for appalling communications as well. Their online information and data was not well organised, to say the least.

But there was a huge amount of data coming out of other sources, particularly the Icelandic Met Office, which the mainstream media completely ignored. The IMO was providing near-live earthquake data for the Mýrdalsjökull area, which includes Eyjafjallajökull icecap, available as a map or a data table. And, as I discovered when I did this myself, if you sent them a nice email they would send you the raw data to play with. There is no reason why the media could not have contacted the IMO and used some of this data in visualisations for their coverage, like this one done by

There was quite a lot of ash forecast data coming out of various different institutes, primarily the UK Met Office. There were videos (search for Eyjafjallajökull) and photos taken by scientists, tourists, locals and the Icelandic news organisations (whose coverage was obviously much better). There were multiple live webcams and volcano enthusiasts captured and shared webcam timelapses showing the eruption and jökulhlaups (flash floods of ash and meltwater) on a daily basis. There was even a cut-out-and-keep model of the volcano, made by the British Geological Society.

And there was some flight data available, as exemplified by this fabulous timelapse of the European flights resuming after the ban:

The problem was that most news journalists, obviously, do not have the kind of specialist knowledge to be able to assess sources, experts, or data for an event that is so far outside of their usual field of experience. I understand that journalists can’t be experts in everything, but I do expect them to know how to find information, find sources, and to find data, and to do so reliably.

But they seemed oblivious to the online communities that were following this eruption closely and where there were people who could have helped them. I spent a lot of time on Erik Klemetti‘s wonderful blog, Eruptions (new site, old site). Erik, a vulcanologist at Denison University in Ohio, played host to a community of scientists and amateurs who discussed developments in detail and answered questions that people had about how all this volcano stuff really works.

I was on that blog almost every day, I don’t remember a single journalist ever asking in the comments for help in finding information or understanding its implications. I do remember, however, a lot of people popping in to get clarification on the misinformation promulgated by the media, particularly rumours that Eyjafjallajökull’s neighbour, Katla, was about to erupt.

The truth is that Eyjafjallajökull was probably the best observed, monitored and recorded eruption in history. The sheer volume of data produced was enormous. And the mainstream media ignored everthing but the pretty pictures.

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