Complaining about today’s news media without even bringing up FOX.
By Carl Petersen
“Our top story tonight…Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.”
-Chevy Chase (1)

My Monday morning got started a little earlier than I expected when I was awoken by the “Shamrock Shake.” From my vantage point, the quake seemed pretty minor – just big enough to make the house creak a little and fray the nerves of anyone with PTSD from the Northridge quake. However, lying in bed I knew that there was the possibility that I had just felt the tail end of a distant quake. As is almost instinctive in such a situation, I turned on the local news.

Earthquake coverage is a very predictable affair. Unless the studio has collapsed, the anchors have absolutely no information to report and proceed on a familiar vamp. “We sure felt that shaking, did you feel it? If you did, please call and let us know.” Then they report what areas have called in and what they felt. Usually it falls along the lines of “my pictures are askew,” “my dog was really freaked” or “I have a new crack in my wall.” I do not know what the reports sound like in a serious quake since the power has usually been knocked out and the television does not work. Finally, Lucy Jones, the face of the U. S. Geological Survey, reports the initial guess at the all important number and location.

Turns out the epicenter was relatively close to my house and my initial assessment was correct. While it was one of the biggest quakes since ‘94, it only had a magnitude of 4.4, which is “not that large by California terms.” (2) (3) With our building codes, a quake of this size should not result in any significant damage and there should be nothing else to report. Unfortunately, the coverage did not stop.

At first the banter was relatively harmless and centered mainly around man-on-the-street, eyewitness reports of a non-event. I realize that we are in the middle of an “earthquake drought,” but it still surprised me that they could find people who would say on camera that they thought that this little shaker was a “bomb” or even “the Big One.” They even worked in the occasional public service message like “LAPD says not to call 911 about the earthquake. They are ‘well aware’ of it.” (4) They must know that at some point even groggy viewers must tire of this type of coverage and, in a ploy for better real-time ratings, the producers pull out the big guns: fear mongering.

In the 25 years that I have lived in Southern California, I have never experienced an earthquake that was immediately followed by a larger quake. In fact, scientists say that the chances an earthquake being a foreshock are about 5%. (5) This does not stop the news anchor from planting the seeds of fear in an already jittery public. “Don’t forget that this could be a warning of a much larger occurrence.” But first, a word from our sponsor.

If anything positive came from the earthquake coverage, it was the pause it caused in CNN’s non-stop coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. With the fate of 239 people at stake, it is certainly an important story. But we really do not have to watch the news-gathering process in real time. Breaking news has been substituted for what Larry King refers to as “breaking speculation.” Does anybody remember the days when reporters checked on their facts before they broadcast them to the world? Perhaps “truth” is just an unfortunate casualty of the 24 hour news cycle.

With all the access to information that we now have, it seems that we have less of the kind that really matters. The long term unemployed have still not had their benefits reinstated, the minimum wage has not been increased since July 24, 2009, and “income inequality has soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression.” (6) Yet CNN spends hours covering a man recreating the Malaysian Airlines flight in a simulator. Much like viewers looking for real news, he did not find any answers. For all the time the network has spent on the story, I hope it turns out better than the ending of Lost.
Join the conversation about this blog on the Northridge Patch.
A complete archive of my weekly blogs can be found here.
You can also follow me on Twitter. #ChangeTheLAUSD