Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 6, 2010

Categorical imperatives: natural, accidental, or intentional

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on May 6, 2010

May 7  Update:  Late yesterday and overnight I received a few private emails from journalists.  They suggest considerable debate in many news rooms regarding the editorial decisions that have crowded out more attention to the floods in the mid-South.  

It might be wishful thinking, but on Friday morning I seem to see a bit more attention to the natural disaster.  Last week a colleague suggested, “catastrophe is whatever Anderson Cooper says it is.”   Thursday night Anderson was reporting from Tennessee (after the blasted ad).  

 But many of the news reports now emerging from the Cumberland river basin are “victim stories.”   It may seem cold — and unrealistic given contemporary culture — but I am not convinced the victim narrative is any better than the blame narrative. 

I am not expecting journalists to spontaneously produce a (boring) RAND Corporation analysis of watershed risk .  But citizens in a democracy need more than emotional engagement, even from visual media. We need cogent analysis  and crystallized explorations of cause, complexities, and effect.

Original Post:

On Monday and Tuesday the broadcast news cycle was remarkable for its consensus: The lead story was the Times Square terrorism scare. The second story was the Gulf oil spill. Coming in close behind was the Nashville deluge.

I did not use a stop-watch, nor could I view all channels simultaneously, and I had to leave for meetings after an hour of flipping channels, but it was my clear impression that CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC and the still Big Three were, for once, in full agreement as to news priority and even news angle.

Wednesday morning the 1-2-3 hierarchy remained the same, but much less attention was being given to the flood. During the Wednesday 7 to 7:30 block CNN did not give any substantive attention to the flood. (It did use the flood story as a teaser to stay tuned past 7:30.) 

A quick glance at Thursday morning headlines suggests the flood continues to subside, both in terms of attention and otherwise.  The May 6 print edition of USA Today seems to be unique among national news outlets in committing its cover story to “In Nashville, a way of life washed away“.  But the USA Today website practically buries the same story.

Some of this reflects availability of new information. The media – like most of us – tend to focus on what is fresh and different.  By Wednesday it had stopped raining over most of the mid-South.

But the kind of attention being given to stories 1 and 2 suggest another difference.  Wednesday morning the editorial focus was on how security lapses let the terrorist suspect board a plane bound for Dubai and how, in retrospect, the suspect had displayed suspicious behavior since last summer. CBS reported that Faisal Shahzad has appeared on one watch list since 1999.

In terms of the Gulf oil spill, a late Tuesday report by the Washington Post received prominent attention in the broadcast media.  Juliet Eilperin reported, “The Interior Department exempted BP’s calamitous Gulf of Mexico drilling operation from a detailed environment impact analysis last year.”

The Wednesday print-edition of the Washington Post placed Ms. Eilperin’s report on page A-4.  For several hours Wednesday morning MSNBC highlighted the identical story as the principal lead on its webpage.  On-air, though not on its website, CNN also gave the story considerable play. 

Many media are repeating Michael Brown’s (FEMA director during Katrina) accusation that President Obama and his allies, “want a crisis like this, so that they can use a crisis like this to shut down offshore and gas drilling.”  There are also earnest reports on how much BP contributed to the Obama presidential campaign.

For the continuing oil spill and the fizzled bomb plot, the hunt-for-blame is underway.  Who is to blame, what did s/he do, when did s/he do it, where did s/he do it, and why did s/he do it? If the why is purposeful or profoundly negligent the media (and all of us?) are even more interested.  Amplified attention will be given if there is the possibility of  gross incompetence, fraud or — especially — personal hypocrisy.

As a result, an intentional event, such as a terrorist attack, will almost always trump a natural calamity in terms of media attention.  An accidental event will usually come in second, unless blame can be clearly assigned.  Natural hazards are, to a certain extent, taken for granted.  The more cause (blame) can be personalized, the more attention the issue will receive.  In this I think the media largely mimics public interest.

Would even the Katrina story have gotten the sustained attention it did without the widely perceived incompetence of the response, personified in Mr. Brown and eventually Mr. Bush?  Coverage was given another boost by recognizing the real culprit was a poorly constructed  levee system rather than the hurricane.  The media tends to focus on human causation.  If it can be traced to an individual human, so much the better.

It is, however, worth noting that as of Wednesday the less news-worthy natural disaster had claimed 29 lives and done an estimated “tens of billions of dollars” of damage. Meanwhile the intentional attack – at the top of the news – had failed and the suspected perpetrator was captured.   The potential consequences of the oil spill remain grim, but not yet fully realized.

Natural hazards have — so far in history — been the principal source of death, injury, and destruction, even exceeding the toll of increasingly efficient international warfare and murderous governments. (See LiveScience list of world’s worst natural disasters and  top 10 US disasters.)  Compared to many accidents and, especially, to lone-wolf terrorists, the threat, vulnerability, and consequences related to most natural disasters can be more easily recognized and mitigated.

It is often possible — and beneficial — to integrate prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery efforts across the categories.  In addition to threat-specific counter-measures, we can apply a strategy of resilience to a range of risks.  But to do this we must be self-aware of — and correct for — a certain obsessive compulsive tendency to give greater weight to what is new and different and an inclination to reduce the issue to who we can blame.

For further consideration:

The Role of Perceived Control in Coping with Disaster (Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology)

Building Resilient Communities: Tools for Assessment (Project on Resilience and Security, Syracuse University)

Acting Intentionally and the Side-Effect Effect (Psychological Science)

Deontological Ethics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

UPDATE: As of 8:00 AM (eastern) on Thursday the broadcast news cycle seems to be restoring flood coverage to its top-three status.  But the depth of attention remains considerably less than that given to the intentional and accidental threats.

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 7, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

Whatever the return frequency of natural disasters, most of those with experience of them understand that they will be experiencing the same kind of event in all probability if they stay put in same place for another 30-40 years.
Technological hazards really are different and the understanding of the poltical system and the impacted public is ususally blighted with ignorance and misinformation.
But three events with what I believe are long term consequences both good and bad have now occurred in the first 18 months of the OBAMA Administration. First, H1N1, second, Haiti, and third, the Ocean Horizon drill rig explosion and oil spill. I am not sure what others believe about the interrelationship of these events but to me they again demonstrate that deceased Congresswoman Tilly Fowler, (R.-FLA) was right in focusing not on FEMA or other Executive Branch organizations but the White House for improving domestic crisis management. Strangely, and it may have been summer 2000 although I believe it was summer 2001 the US House of Representatives passed very significant crisis management legislation focusing on the White House. The bill was never the subject of hearings or taken up by the White House. What is interesting is the Senator Barbara Milkulski in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew and the NAPA report Coping with Catastrophe and its conclusion that ultimately the President gets the system of crisis management he wants, not necessarily what he needs, is still the key to these crisis events. Her legislation was S.995 and unfortunately my files on that bill are long gone. Hoping someone on the list will follow these events and increase my understanding of why various White House operations seem so bblivious to the fact that you know what may just happen on their watch. HSPD-5 has failed in both H1N1 and the oil spill, IMO. No one seems to understand their accountability for results or collecting the metrics that would allow establishment of what results were achieved or failed to be achieved.

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