The day the earth stood still

How the media covered the "earthquake"

When an earthquake was predicted for December along the New Madrid fault, the news media didn't just report the ensuing panic they created it.

by Ed Weathers

In Memphis we knew it had gotten out of hand when the BBC called the P&H.

The P&H is a local tavern which bills itself as "The Beer Joint of Your Dreams." But that's not why the BBC called. It called because the P&H had decided to have an "Earthquake Eve" party on December 2, the day before Memphis was going to get hit by The Earthquake.

Yup, the BBC interviewed a beer joint about an earthquake. That's when we knew The Earthquake had turned all those media brains, once and for all, into mush.

True, The Earthquake made fools of a lot of people, but in the opinion of many observers, the press was more foolish than everybody else put together. Before it was over, virtually every newspaper, magazine and TV station in Middle America exploited The Earthquake. Every earthquake prophet, prediction, preparation and party made headlines for months.

There was only one problem: The Earthquake never happened and no one who really understands earthquakes ever thought it was going to happen.

In Memphis it all began on November 28, l989, when The Commercial Appeal ran an item that said "a scientist who correctly predicted October's San Francisco earthquake" in a speech had announced that something called "earth tides" could cause an earthquake in the New Madrid seismic zone on or around December 3, 1990. The New Madrid zone runs through parts of Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Arkansas. The scientist was Iben Browning, a New Mexico climatologist who sells long-range weather forecasts to businesses.

The story went on to interview real earthquake experts who discredited Browning's prediction, but it was already too late. Before long, The Earthquake became the story of the year in Memphis and throughout the Midwest and Midsouth.

By late summer of 1990, Browning was saying there was a "50/50" chance of a big earthquake within a five-day period around December 3 if not on the New Madrid fault, then near Tokyo or in California or somewhere in the northern hemisphere. Again, the papers repeated his prediction, and again they quoted experts who said it was bunk.

Then things began to snowball. Every time the Browning prediction was headlined, the public reacted and every time the public reacted, the prediction was headlined. Sales of earthquake insurance went up and the media wrote about it. Local emergency management officials held earthquake drills and the media wrote about it. The media wrote about it, and people began making plans to get out of Memphis on December 3 and 4. The same thing was happening throughout the region.

By mid-autumn, the media saw what they had wrought, and began to backtrack. In October, they gave front-page coverage to a report from the National Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council saying Browning's prediction was bogus. It also turned out that transcripts of his 1989 speech proved Browning had not predicted the San Francisco quake. He hadn't even mentioned it.

But again, it was too late. For whatever reasons, a lot of people decided to believe Browning, not the experts.

Soon the press found itself forced to cover news it had itself generated. At first, it seemed reluctant but by the end, it too seemed to have caught the earthquake hysteria. Every television station in Memphis ran a special week-long series on earthquake predictions and preparedness. As December 3 approached, The Commercial Appeal began running a daily series called "Quake Watch," complete with both its own cracked-earth logo and (trying to have it both ways) a disclaimer saying the quake prediction had been discounted by experts. The series covered everything from rumors of boiling lakes to instructions for boiling water.

As the date of the prediction approached, the little town of New Madrid, MO, was so overrun with media that all the motels were full, some citizens went into hiding, and reporters were reduced to interviewing each other.

One editor, Jim Paxton, of The Paducah Sun, in Kentucky, finally had enough. In November, he declared a moratorium on earthquake news in his newspaper, noting that the media had "played a major role in creating fear and hysteria." His was a lone voice in the wilderness.

The public, meanwhile, its fears stoked by media hype, made its own plans for Earthquake Day. Many schools in four states closed. Schools that stayed open told students to bring three-day emergency rations with them or else stay home. Once-a-year charity benefits scheduled for December 2 and 3 were cancelled for fear no one would show up. Businesses closed. Supermarkets sold out of bottled water, candles, and flashlight batteries. Children had nightmares. Parents had nightmares. Everyone had nightmares.

December 3 came and went, not with a bang but a wimper.

Even before, the press began what promises to be a long period of self-recrimination. On November 30, for example, The Courier-Journal, in Louisville, ran a page-one story citing the media's irresponsibility in reporting Browning's prediction. Some experts suggested that science-ignorant reporters were to blame; others said the press wasn't sufficiently skeptical of Browning's claims. A few said that the press had done the public a service by at least increasing awareness of the need to be prepared; a few others said that because of the press, the public would now fail to take earthquake preparedness seriously.

At the P&H, meanwhile, 15 minutes before the "Earthquake Eve" party was scheduled to start on December 2, the phone rang. A reporter wanted to know all about the party and the quake. He was calling from a radio station. In Tokyo.

Ed Weathers is manuscripts editor for Memphis magazine and a freelance writer.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 1 (January 1991), p. 2.

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