The 24-hour news cycle and social media provided consumers with up to the minute images and information about the toll of Sandy. Too bad some of those images and information were both woefully incorrect and deliberately misleading. Brooke and Bob talk to the New Jersey Record's John Brennan and Salon's Laura Miller about how disasters plunge us into a media mix of the real, the unreal, and the unknown.
BOB GARFIELD: This week, the coverage of Hurricane Sandy left several big messes in its wake that required later cleanup. For instance, reports of the death of the Atlantic City Boardwalk were, as they say, highly exaggerated.
ABC REPORTER: ABC’s Ginger Zee in Atlantic City with that story. Boy, Ginger, the storm really wiped that away.
GINGER ZEE: And we, we could not even get to that Boardwalk as of a couple of hours ago, but we just saw some of the first images, and let me tell you the Boardwalk that you and I have walked, and so many others, part of it is gone.
JOHN BRENNAN: It’s a piece of boardwalk but it’s not the Boardwalk? And that piece had been in disrepair and, frankly, Sandy, probably saved the city some money by tossing it into the ocean.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s John Brennan who covers sports and gaming for the New Jersey Record.
JOHN BRENNAN: And then apparently CNN, in the early evening, went with this again, and that really took it to a whole ‘nother level. So at that point, I posted a blog note saying, let’s get the nonsense out of the way. There is no devastation to the Atlantic City tourism district near the casinos.
BOB GARFIELD: Brennan was mightily frustrated.
JOHN BRENNAN: I do think a correction and clarification, at the very least, would be in order because there’s only one section of Boardwalk in Atlantic City that people care about, and that piece is fully intact. A lot of people were misled.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, there was a lot of that going around, in the old media and, of course, in the new media too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As Hurricane Sandy made its way up the eastern coast of the country, we saw homes underwater, trees torn from the ground and tunnels flooding. We also saw massive waves crashing against the Statue of Liberty and - sharks swimming through flooded neighborhoods. But those images were fake.
Salon Senior Writer Laura Miller says that the fake photographs circulated during the storms showed the, quote, “unreal real world we now occupy during disasters.”
LAURA MILLER: Probably the most widely-circulated one was of a sort of swirling brownish-blackish cloud ready to pounce on the Statue of Liberty.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was even a picture I saw of a cloud in the shape of an evil kitten threatening the –
- Statue of Liberty.
LAURA MILLER: Yeah, someone Photoshopped a, a mad Persian cat face into the –
- into the cloud.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why?
LAURA MILLER: Well, I think that the fake photos fall into - to different categories. The sort of the premature ones I see as less an attempt to sort of say, this is what's happening now than to say, this is how we all feel right now. They're almost more in the realm of art and commentary, than they are in reporting. The irritating thing about that is that then once the real photos start to come in, you’re like, hmm, is that real?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's what Farhad Manjoo calls the Photoshopification of the world. It’s not so much that you'll believe stuff that's false, but that you'll disbelieve stuff that's real.
LAURA MILLER: That’s very true. Someone on Salon’s staff - we did the photo of the rollercoaster in New Jersey sort of collapsing into the waves, and I remember looking at it, going, oh, that’s a fake! That turned out to be a real photo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was one Twitter troll, in particular, that seemed to have contributed a great deal to the misinformation. What can you tell me about @ComfortablySmug?
LAURA MILLER: That was Shashank Tripathi. He was a hedge fund analyst and a campaign manager for a local Republican candidate. He was tweeting news updates, you know, that the Stock Exchange was flooded or that Con Ed was going to turn off all of the power in Manhattan, and these, you know, many people took to be real, although if you looked at his whole Twitter feed, you could see that, you know, some of the things that he tweeted were obviously not meant to be taken that seriously. But that's not the way tweets work. Each one is a discrete unit. They get circulated out of context.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: His defenses were all about people could've seen that I was lying.
LAURA MILLER: Yes, if you had done your job, you would have been able to see that I was lying or joking, or whatever it was he was doing. With certain of these people who go out and
troll-ishly post misinformation, there's a diminishing value to sort of speculating on their mentality. They’re outliers. They’re just the nasty people in this world and they, they just were less visible before the Internet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But let’s pick up on this idea. There was a great deal of outrage towards @ComfortablySmug, but you wrote that he was, “Just one thread in a weave of reality and unreality that swathed everyone who was trying to follow the hurricane,” and that complaints about social media trolls like him are “historically short-sighted.”
LAURA MILLER: Whenever I hear that these bogus, you know, social media rumors, I think of disasters where I was in place. Now with Sandy, I wasn't even in New York, but for the Loma Prieta earthquake in the late 1980s I was in San Francisco, and we lost power and our neighbors plugged a radio into a car battery. and we were hearing these reports that the Bay Bridge had collapsed. And, of course, we assumed that that meant that the entire bridge had sort of crumpled into the water and cars going over the edge. You know, we were completely terrified. It was not nearly as catastrophic as we believed.
I think that it is for the good that we have all become a lot more skeptical about any kind of media report or photograph that is circulated not only in, in social media but in traditional media, because they never really were all that reliable. The relentless focus on the drive to find something or anything creates a sense sometimes that disasters are more extensive than they really are.
The thing that I would be more concerned about is that we haven’t really reconciled ourselves to how much of life actually isn't reportable. At the same time that it seems exaggerated, who knows what we aren't aware of because it's not photographed. The fact that we could miss something doesn't really occur to people, partly because we have this belief that everything important is photographed. And that is potentially dangerous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Laura, thank you very much.
LAURA MILLER: Well, it was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Salon Senior Writer Laura Miller.