Hawaii’s false missile alarm: Three ways the media amplifies fear and panic | The Knife Media

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(The Knife Media) “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL”

This is the message that Hawaiian residents and tourists saw on their cell phones and and TVs and heard on the radio on Saturday. Although people may have had varied reactions to the message, many, if not most, probably experienced fear or panic.

But instead of helping quell panic (e.g. with fact-based reporting) once the mistaken alert was corrected, the media potentially added to it. Here are three ways the outlets we analyzed used language and manipulated facts in a way that was more likely to amplify fear than not.

Emotional language

Our analysts didn’t need to look far to find emotionally charged words or phrases, a.k.a. spin. Consider the following headlines and lead sentences from the outlets we analyzed (spin words highlighted):

“A wave of panic rattles Hawaii after false missile alert” (Associated Press, headline)

A false missile alert “was dispatched…setting off widespread panic…” (NYT, lead sentence)

Using such language sensationalizes what was likely a troubling event for some, if not most people.

Overall, these two outlets received spin ratings of 47 and 49 percent, respectively (the higher the percentage, the more spun the article).

NPR and BBC on the other hand had relatively less spin (39 and 40 percent, respectively) and stuck more to facts, which may have helped readers experience how they felt about the false alarm with less interference from the journalist who wrote the piece.

First impressions

The lead sentence of an article can play a significant role in forming a reader’s initial impression of a news story — in this case, of the false alarm. In this case, The New York Times and AP encouraged fear from the start by associating the incident with the possibility of an attack from North Korea:

“[Hawaii] was already on edge because of escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea.” (The New York Times)

“The second recent blunder in Hawaii’s planning for a possible North Korean nuclear attack left islanders shaken…” (AP)

Recent developments in North Korea’s missile and nuclear program are a relevant context for understanding the importance of Hawaii’s missile alert system, and how people responded to the false alarm. After all, Hawaii began testing Cold War-era warning sirens again in December in response to North Korea. But mentioning “escalating tensions” or a possible nuclear attack in the first sentence may frame the rest of the story against a backdrop of fear of North Korea. Putting the information later in the article might avoid this, and gives more space to provide context for why the information is relevant.

Cognitive biases

Another possible effect of emphasizing the threat of a possible missile attack and juxtaposing it with the false alarm is it may contribute to an availability bias. This is a cognitive bias that explains how people’s assessment of risk can be influenced by what most readily comes to mind. For example, the more the media reminds people of a particular threat – a missile attack in this case – the more likely they are to overestimate the threat.

Here’s another example of an outlet possibly contributing to an availability bias that, in this case, might affect people’s perceived risk of technology causing a malfunction in the missile alert system:

“The false alert was a stark reminder of what happens when the old realities of the nuclear age collide with the speed — and the potential for error — inherent in the internet age.” (The New York Times)

When dealing with nuclear weapons, even a small chance of error is a risk. However, there are other risks posed by technology that have greater likelihood of occurring, but may get less attention as a result of an availability bias.

Distorting reality

A survey conducted by Chapman University, titled America’s Top Fears 2017, showed that more respondents were afraid of North Korea using weapons (47.5 percent) than murder by a stranger (18.3 percent) or by someone they know (11.6 percent). This is despite the fact that being murdered by a stranger or someone you know is certainly more likely than an attack by North Korea.

We can’t say to what degree the media is responsible for mismatches between the fear of something (e.g. an attack by North Korea) and the likelihood of it happening, but amplifying fear and panic instead of providing fact-based reporting likely doesn’t help.

Written by Shane Mottishaw

Edited by Shane Mottishaw, Jens Erik Gould and Rosa Laura Junco

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