The Co-Intelligence Institute // CII home // Y2K home
Wed, 26 May 1999
Here's another important testimony that was given yesterday at the Senate hearings.
Director of Broadcasting, Media Studies Center
The Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem
May 25, 1999
Y2K is a unique tale playing itself out on the landscape of American journalism as part concern and part cartoon. And as you said, Senator Bennett, "How do we strike a balance between Paul Revere and Chicken Little?" In recent months my organization, the Media Studies Center, has heard from hundreds of journalists who are looking for the proper voice in which to tell this story. In the words of a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News, right now journalists on this beat are forced into guessing.
Many news organizations are not digging into the technical vulnerabilities of their towns, cities, and states. In part, because of a lack of leadership from the federal government. Not only a lack of leadership, but also a lack of consensus within government entities charged with gathering these facts.
The governments' own Y2K Czar, John Koskinen, advises journalists to continually drive toward the facts . Though it seems obvious to journalists in the know, Mr. Koskinen seems to avoid facts. Always in a calm and low key presentation, he tells us the power industry nationally has done well but he's concerned about local power companies. He thinks the national telephone systems will work but he is concerned about the 1400 small telephone companies. He indicates we should not worry but we should worry.
These are not facts, but public valium, and the news media as a whole is not picking up on it. As Jeff Gralnick of CNN told us "journalists are drowning in a sea of conflicting information."
In the absence of consistent facts, government proclamations that are not stories become stories. Consider these headlines; "FAA head books flight for New Year's," "Y2K Czar Sees Serene January 1," "Don't Panic Over Y2K, Senators Say."
Then, journalists find conflicting information in the government's own Y2K websites. For starters, this Senate committee's web site offers a clear link to Mr. Koskinen's Y2K. gov. website but Mr. Koskinen's buries its link back to the Senate's. Why? Is there a difference of opinion between the two?
Senator Dodd, you state: "The world oil supply faces a series of Y2K risks from the well in the ground to the gas station in your neighborhood." Mr. Koskinen says, " Although there may be some minor disruptions .... the industries are confident ... that the supply of natural gas and petroleum...products (will be) uninterrupted."
This committee cites a GAO survey that raises major concern over the readiness of America's water utilities. On the other hand, Mr. Koskinen reports cautious optimism that water utility services will continue uninterrupted by Y2K issues. Journalists are not getting a clear and consistent message . Marsha Stepanek of Business Week magazine says "this story takes commitment and manpower" and Senators, you need to explain why news organization should give it both.
A few journalists have been assigned the Y2K beat and they get it; they understand this issue is not black and white - it cannot be polarized. Long ago they abandoned the plane-falling-out-of-the sky-analogies in their reporting. These are the reporters looking every day for hard information. Journalists want you to admit what you don't know and admit why that worries you. Then they can explain to the public how the lack of information might signal problems. And they can report how the government suggests we prepare to cope with potential problems.
Unfortunately, journalists on this beat tell us they now find information that looks suspiciously like a cover up. ABC correspondent, James Walker, found the following instructions on an electric utilities website regarding a Y2K drill:
"Do not make the drill too complex. We want to have a successful and meaningful story for publication."
Then there is the rest of the news media, reporters doing stories every day on health, finance, religion, politics, media, the arts, entertainment, news, weather and sports. There is a potential Y2K issue in each of these areas and more. Help journalists understand that it is not just a technology story and help them explain that to the rest of America.
It is important to recognize that there are individual examples of fine Y2K coverage every day and local news organizations taking it upon themselves to make preparedness suggestions. News reports in Miami tell residents to prepare as if for a hurricane, in San Francisco as if an earthquake, in Oklahoma as if a tornado. But it remains a patchwork of reporting that has not formed a nationwide mosaic of understanding.
Big companies are admitting in increasing numbers that they won't be ready in time. Perhaps the government could convene a summit that brings captains of industry together to explain to journalists how system breakdowns in the private sector might affect the public. Through the news media you could instantly attach honesty, leadership, public understanding and perhaps calm, supplanting the current environment of ignorance, confusion and in some cases, panic.
Y2K is not a hurricane earthquake or tornado: this is an expected
event. If Y2K failures are a fraction of what the government believes
they might be, in the post-millennium blame game, journalists
will haunt the people responsible for duplicity.