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David Zurawik: Surprise! An information system that serves citizens well in this era of disinformation, spin and lies

David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Op Eds

One of the most depressing parts of being a media critic in recent years has been tracking the degradation of our information ecosystem. Spin, exaggeration, propaganda, slander and lies from politicians, corporations and some media outlets that put politics above journalism have seriously damaged Americans' trust in what they see and hear in the media.

But a bad storm brought some good news this week. At least one part of our information system still works, the part that deals with storm watches, warnings and preparedness. And for all the government agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Justice Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that have seen their information politicized during the current administration, the National Weather Service has somehow managed to remain credible when it comes to storms.

I find that very hopeful. Maybe there is more resiliency in us and some of the structures of American government than we think.

A picture on the front page of Tuesday's Baltimore Sun showing residents filling sandbags in advance of Tropical Storm Isaias reminded me of the America we used to know of citizens working together to protect themselves and their community. A quote in the story that accompanied the picture from a 72-year-old former teacher stood out and rattled around in my head all morning: "Better to be prepared," she said.

The word "prepared" and the notion of residents and business owners having taken the storm warnings Sunday and Monday seriously were sounded again and again in the wall-to-wall, storm coverage Tuesday morning that I saw on local and cable TV.

We in the Baltimore area caught a break with this storm; it was not as destructive as many forecasters thought it might be. But the preparations taken here surely helped minimize personal and property damage as well. And I never blame weather forecasters for saying a storm is going to be worse than it turns out to be. I would rather be overwarned than underwarned. Overwarned, I might wind up buying some survival products I didn't need. Underwarned, I could lose my life or the lives of those I love.

Given the COVID-19 hell in which we are living this summer, I cannot help but compare the success of the information system that prepared us for Isaias with the failure of the information system on the pandemic.

For people to take the actions necessary to be prepared, like filling sandbags, they first had to believe the warnings about the threat and the actions prescribed by experts as delivered through media.

That's a matter of credibility, in this case trusting the National Weather Service and state authorities, as well as media entities like the Weather Channel, local TV stations, digital sites and such major media outlets. The institutional credibility of those entities is further enhanced when there is a unity in their messaging: "This storm could be bad, you need to prepare."

 

There was a unity here. But just think how confusing it would have been to Maryland residents if Gov. Larry Hogan had said on Monday that the storm wasn't going to be anything more than a heavy rain and that the media were just hyping it for some nasty reason like harming his administration. Seriously, if you were someone who voted for and admired Hogan wouldn't you be confused enough to maybe not go help load sand?

The next time you see or hear a media critic like me talking about a "polluted media ecosystem" or a "war on truth," don't roll your eyes and tune us out. I admit we have done a lousy job of explaining the current information crisis in America in concrete terms. But storm warnings are among the most concrete examples of how good information not only helps citizens make sound decisions about their lives, it can actually save lives. Meanwhile, bad information can kill.

This week, we got some good information on Isaias, and some of us came together to act on it. I am hoping to witness and be able to report on more of that in coming months.

About The Writer

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun's media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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