How the media can make or break our society's encounter with Y2K
by Tom Atlee
NOTE: I am not a professional journalist. Since writing
this, I have
become aware of a broader dialogue among professional journalists
about some of the very issues raised in this article. I hope that
professional journalists who are far more qualified than I am will
grab this torch and carry it as it should be carried, addressing their
colleagues as only they can. We need the media to do its job well.
It is widely acknowledged that no one actually knows what's going to happen
with the Year 2000 problem (Y2K). We've never faced anything quite like
it. How does one report on a situation that may end up either catastrophic
or barely noticeable?
From an objective standpoint, there may be no fully satisfactory answer
to that question. However, more than objectivity is at work here. Public
perception of Y2K will play a decisive role in how it turns out. The obvious
example is bank runs. If people panic about their money, they could crash
the financial system, regardless of computer problems. And that's only
Some officials have therefore chosen to reassure the public that everything
will be OK. But with contrary evidence so readily available, the credibility
of such official assurances sinks below its usual abysmal state. Each new
statement only serves to increase public skepticism and uneasiness.
Under these circumstances, how the media reports on Y2K can make or break
our society. Once panic starts, it can be very hard to stop. Without abandoning
objectivity, journalists need to think about responsibility, as well. We
all need to ask: What journalistic activities will enhance our society's
capacity to deal constructively with Y2K -- and which will trigger chaos?
You might consider that Y2K can fall under "risk-management" coverage
-- a vital function of the media. Bad coverage increases risk; good coverage
Let's consider some of the responsible angles journalists can take in covering
Y2K. Luckily there have been quite a few Y2K stories that reflect and support
the many positive Y2K efforts. Such responsible media have tried to do
a) Provide information to readers/viewers in a way that helps them make
up their own minds about:
-- what is being done about Y2K in their community, state, nation and the
-- what a wide range of responsible experts are saying about Y2K
-- how to prepare themselves, their organizations, and their communities
-- how to help their children, friends and families deal with Y2K
-- how to deal with psychological, relationship, organizational, etc., problems
that come up with Y2K
-- where to go for more information, help or other resources
b) Treat Y2K as an ongoing story of interest to all people.
c) Help people (especially local government officials) understand that
Y2K is not just a "computer problem." They need to be concerned
not only with the Y2K compliance of computers and microchips in their immediate
domain, but with the larger social impacts of Y2K bugs that don't get fixed
-- including the international ramifications and local community possibilities.
d) Help make the distinction between Y2K and millennial dynamics so that
citizens don't get distracted by irrelevant millennial debates. (Ironically,
Y2K isn't a millennial problem at all, but rather a century problem and
would probably have happened in 1900, if we'd had computers in 1870!)
e) Bring out the best in the human spirit by featuring human interest stories
about individuals, groups and communities who
-- work well with others on Y2K (especially with people who are different
-- help others, especially vulnerable people -- the very young, the elderly,
the disabled, the poor, etc.
-- take notable initiatives or leadership (especially if they're otherwise
"ordinary" or are using their special skills, status or profession
in an unusual way, such as a high school social studies teacher helping
her students research the special needs and resources of their neighbors)
-- overcome common obstacles relating to Y2K (such as coming to terms with
the uncertainty of it, or going from being a couch potato to organizing
a community garden)
-- use Y2K to improve their communities or the world
-- do interesting things with Y2K (such as high school kids making a website
of Y2K-related games for other kids, or the family in Spokane that practiced
living without electricity and running water for a day)
-- propose things that would help everyone get through Y2K better (such
as pairing up rich and poor "sister neighborhoods").
f) Investigate neglect and abuse of power in business, government, etc.,
regarding Y2K (such as failure to ensure nuclear safety, or Y2K profiteering,
or divisive political gamesmanship at the expense of the public welfare).
The next step is not to pillory the powerholders, but to publicly challenge
them to stop messing around and take positive action that serves the public
good. Better yet, highlight the SYSTEMIC problems -- like short term thinking
-- that everyone can address.
g) Help the public learn useful Y2K-related lessons, such as
-- how to face their Y2K fears and move on to constructive action
-- what we've been doing collectively that led to this Y2K problem in the
-- how individually sensible actions (like taking your money out of the
bank) can generate disastrous social phenomena (like bank runs), while shared
or communal preparations can help everyone do well through Y2K.
-- how to prepare in the face of radical uncertainty by nurturing good relationships
with neighbors, a wide range of contingency plans, a healthy spirituality,
a sense of humor, and lots of creativity, flexibility and tolerance in the
face of interruptions and obstacles.
h) Look ahead to likely problems (such as bank runs, panic buying, failures
in entitlement programs, etc.) and play an active role in preventing or
preparing for them.
i) Editorially advocate public policies that will protect communities (such
as the warehousing of excess grain in cities, or ensuring that water systems
work no matter what).
j) Acknowledge that all of us -- including reporters, editors and officials
-- live in communities that may be impacted by Y2K. We may have relatives
or friends in large Northern cities which could be particularly effected.
Our neighbors may be buying guns or taking all their money out of the bank.
We are all potentially vulnerable. It is time for all of us to contact
our common humanity and act from that common ground for the good of all
of us -- and not to act as if this has nothing to do with us, or as if we
can make it alone.
k) Sponsor (or at least creatively publicize) community forums that:
-- air diverse perspectives,
-- clarify the issues,
-- inform and engage citizens
-- elicit community wisdom (see www.co-intelligence.org),
-- involve significant stakeholders on behalf of the community.
l) Work with (and challenge) other stakeholders (including other media)
to play positive roles in their communities, in the nation and in the world.
Good local coverage of Y2K can actually be an asset to a media outlet.
Gary Gach notes that "the community preparedness coalitions, and their
revitalization of communities and the people and businesses in them is a
story that media has a competitive interest in. If you compare media coverage
of international issues, you see a similarity (clips, feeds, etc.) [in each
media outlet]; same for national issues. It is local coverage where each
media outlet has their own stamp (anchor, pundit, columnist, etc)."
Furthermore, Gach continues, "Media can profit by not only their coverage
but also their participation in coalitions with local businesses, nonprofits
and government for Teach-Ins, Preparedness Days, Y2K Volunteers, etc."
(email note, 2/15/99)
Unfortunately, as valuable as it is to everyone, this useful kind of story
and media role has so far been the exception rather than the rule. Many
recent stories have actually undermined positive Y2K efforts. We don't
need more stories that:
a) Make fun of people trying to do positive work on Y2K -- whether they're
trying to fix computers or prepare individuals and communities. We want
to encourage creative initiatives, not stigmatize them.
b) Focus primarily on extremists. Extremists are (by definition) a minority.
Focusing on them causes people to think that Y2K is an issue for crazy
people and not for ordinary, sensible folks like themselves. This self-fulfilling
formulation abandons the whole field to the crazies, which could prove dangerous,
c) Act as if the only thing that can happen during Y2K is EITHER massive
disruptions OR business as usual. The overwhelming consensus is that no
one knows for sure what will happen. Dichotomizing the issue only makes
it harder for everyone to think clearly about the most likely scenarios
between the two extremes.
d) Write off public fears as irrational. There are irrational elements
in nearly all fears. However, in many cases -- including Y2K -- there are
also very good reasons to be afraid. If people can't talk through their
fears, they'll get stuck in them, acting them out in weird ways which interfere
with sensible action.
e) Act as if Y2K is primarily a millennial problem, comparable to the apocalyptic
panics at the end of the first millennium. While millennialism is certainly
a factor for some people, mainstream experts have confirmed that Y2K is
a real, objective problem that just happens to co-incide with a new millennium.
Equating Y2K to millennialism makes it harder for people to face it for
what it is and deal with it soberly.
f) Treat Y2K as a weird, occasional story. Y2K is, in fact, a dramatic,
multi-faceted story of ongoing relevance to the vast majority of people.
Only editors who -- in the closing days of 1998 -- had the guts to say,
"We already did a story on Monica and the impeachment -- we're not
going to do another one this week!" can legitimately protest, "We
had a Y2K story last month" or "Our readers have already heard
enough about Y2K."
g) See Y2K primarily in terms of conflict, such as between Republicans
and Democrats, or between rich and poor, or between technophiles and Luddites.
Y2K is a shared problem that will respond best to respectful dialogue and
collaborative action among all of us. Divisiveness for the sake of journalistic
drama will get us nowhere -- probably very fast and unpleasantly.
h) Publish information under the guise of "objectivity" whose
primary role is to increase panic. For example, a number of recent surveys
have claimed that a significant number of Americans plan to take most of
their money out of the bank. The impact of this data could be disastrous.
The average reader may well decide that they, too, should take their money
out -- and do it sooner than all those other people, because there won't
be enough cash to go around. While the original survey may be objectively
accurate, it is extremely dangerous to give such negative news more coverage
than all the positive things Y2K-concerned people are doing to help each
other and their communities.
i) Just dig out the dirt. Many media pride themselves in looking for dirt.
While this can serve a useful social function (especially when aimed at
power abusers), it can also evoke in readers and viewers a pessimistic spectatorism,
a cynical passivity that undermines citizenship. The alternative is not
Pollyanna positivism, but rather evocative stories that engage people in
improving the conditions around them.
j) Accept the word of government and business officials about how everything
is going to be done in time, everything's going to be fine, without even
asking obvious questions like "Can you give us a list of the NON-mission
critical systems in the Department of Health and Human Services?" or
"Have you verified that all of your suppliers and leading customers
are going to be compliant?" This isn't to prove that they're lying
and everything's going to fall apart. It is to ensure that they provide
the public with vital information. The next question should always be "What
are you doing to help your community (or, at least, your employees and customers)
One thing should be clear here: We're not talking about abandoning journalistic
"It is important not to dismiss the underlying principles of journalism
but their poor practice. How would Edward R. Murrow have covered Y2K? Or
would a journalist of today reporting back then spend all his or her time
trying to present the Axis point of view in all of [their] pieces and then
consider it a job well done? How is it that the smart people of the press
haven't developed a personal investment in what might happen to them, their
families, their neighbors, their country, their world? How is it they think
that thinking things through is somehow taking sides? For whatever reason
-- denial, time constraints, laziness, fear of embarrassment, lack of important
people saying this is important, the cool of the unconcerned -- whatever
-- the media aren't working to develop the right questions and haven't been
able to think through the issue in all its confounding complexity. Y2K hasn't
been elevated to an issue of national concern for which there is only one
side -- be safe rather than sorry." -- Will Duggan, co-developer of
a series on Y2K for national public television.
There is, after all, plenty of positive Y2K-related activity to report.
"The basic choice for the media is to focus less on the zany and outlandish
stories of a few individuals which are of little lasting value, and choose
instead to serve the public interest and tell the stories that will have
real value to people trying to understand what they can do. Those stories
are out there, and they make good copy. Underneath the hype and the apocalyptic
fear, there are a whole LOT of people acting with extraordinary decency
and neighborly concern, working to see that their communities work through
this problem and come out stronger for it." -- Paul Andrews of The
United Religions Initiative, January 27, 1999
How journalists handle Y2K may be the most decisive factor in whether our
country comes apart or comes together during the next year. This is not
business-as-usual. This is an extraordinary historical moment, and the
decisions of journalists will, in more cases than we may want to admit,
make the difference between life and death. I suggest, with Joan Konner,
Publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, that it is once again
time to see "journalism as a way of participating creatively and constructively
in the life of our society and our times ... as a public service and public
trust." (September/October 1998)
Please invite all journalists you know to consider this well.
February 22, 1999