Even if you're not among those who believe the world will end on 12/21/2012, it's gotta end sometime right? And if there are still journalists at the end, they'll need a game plan. At a recent journalism pow-wow, the role of journalists in two apocalyptic scenarios -- global pandemic and alien invasion -- were discussed with funny and useful results. Brooke speaks with Andrew Fitzgerald who suggested the topic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some predict that at the end of the year, on the numerically chilling 12/21/2012, the world will end. I mean, the end has to come sometime, right? And if there are still journalists when that time comes, they’ll need a plan on how to report on our last days.
A journalism powwow held last fall, attended by heavy hitters like Google, the New York Times and the Knight Foundation, featured freewheeling discussions of things like present and future business models to monetize the news industry, and so on. But the loosely scheduled so-called “un-conference” also featured a white board, where anyone could pose a topic. And Andrew Fitzgerald, manager of editorial programming at Twitter, suggested a session on reporting the apocalypse. He told me back in December that the group settled on two scenarios, alien invasion and global pandemic. Fitzgerald said the idea came to him after all that talk about the future of the news.
ANDREW FITZGERALD: I was standing there looking at the white board myself and I thought, “But what about the real future.
What about the end of time?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote in your blog post, "You wake up on a Tuesday, make yourself some coffee, open your laptop, check Twitter, to find space ships are suspended over our planet's major cities, preparing to attack." So how did you think things would play out from there?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: Well, we borrowed the scenario, admittedly, from Independence Day, which I am a secret fan of…that model of the aliens appear, there is a short period of time before they begin any sort of action, and so you have a period of time of spreading information, in which our communications infrastructures are still working.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of the technology is going to be the first thing to go - no Internet, maybe no phone communications, or at least cell phones. So how do you even begin as a journalist to get the information out?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: Human communication has this rich history of different formats, everything from carrier pigeons to smoke signals, to ham radio, but we don't have a lot of experience in, say, ham radios, which is the format we decided would be probably the best one to use. You can — you could probably fit a tweet around a pigeon's leg.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So [LAUGHS], but seriously, how are you a journalist, in the classic sense, during an alien invasion? What would you cover?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: When the aliens invade, the first thing that you need to do is do some service journalism. Report where they're moving, what they're up to. You need to explain alien anatomy, such that people know that what looks like an alien's hand is actually its mouth, and so you don't want to - move your delicious human guts anywhere near that appendage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what was the reaction among your journalism cohort when someone raised the idea that perhaps journalists ought to engage in getting the aliens' side of things?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: There was a fair amount of shouting down.
First, we talked about which celebrity journalist would be first —
- to interview Zlorg, the alien lord, full well knowing that there was a high percentage chance of them not surviving the interview.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Geraldo Rivera! [LAUGHS]
ANDREW FITZGERALD: Uh, no names, no names.
Very quickly we started talking about the political reporting on people who thought we should listen to the aliens verses people who didn't think we should start listening to the aliens.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did it break down along party lines?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: I believe the phrase was "Alien-Hugging Democrats vs. Alien-Killing Republicans."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Now, you note that David Carr, the media columnist for the New York Times, observed at the un-conference, that in conflict journalism it's the symmetries of war that keep journalists safe, and that there's no symmetry in our war with our would-be destroyers. What does that mean?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: The fact that these two sides are warriors battling with one another, as a journalist, you are in a separate role that is not a part of that symmetrical relationship. And so, it is the battle between these two sides that protects you. Unfortunately, in alien conflict it is the ultimate asymmetry in warfare, the ultimate Other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, every single war ever fought has involved the home team and the Other, with a capital "O." That's why war after war you always hear about "the Other" killing babies. Most of these stories are made up, but they keep reappearing so that they seem less than human; they don't value life the way that we do.
ANDREW FITZGERALD: And maybe we would learn this in the sit-down one-on-one with Zlorg, in which we talk about, you know, his upbringing. Maybe they value life more, and maybe they have a, a reason why humanity must be eradicated that we should listen to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's go to the global pandemic scenario. The big discussion around the possible pandemic was whether it'd be okay to suspend the facts. What did you mean by that?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: I wanted to raise the question of whether or not one should not wait for verification and put information out there and give it a rating, say, “We don't really believe this is true, we give it a 3 on our pandemic watch truth scale.” The journalists in the room roundly disagreed with this idea. Everyone raised the point that actually, in these disaster scenarios facts are even more important. The example that really resonated with a lot of people in the room was Katrina. The rumors that propagated during those first couple of days, many of which turned out to be absolutely untrue, were widely reported in, in mass media. We decided that for journalists, in a time of apocalypse, the facts are actually even more important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you considered the world ending in alien invasion and the world ending in a pandemic. Uh, I'm surprised you didn't consider a scenario which many futurists believe in, that the robots will eventually take over.
ANDREW FITZGERALD: [LAUGHS] It was our planned third apocalypse to go through.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So let's say it really happened, which would you prefer, to be devoured by aliens or killed in a global pandemic?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: You know, I think I would probably choose alien invasion if, for no other reason, than at the very end to know that we weren't alone in the universe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Good answer. Thank you, Andrew.
ANDREW FITZGERALD: Thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andrew Fitzgerald is manager of editorial programming for Twitter.