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Earthshaking story! Film at eleven!

SOMEHOW THE IDEA of an earthquake unsettles us even more than the prospect of other natural catastrophes, such as tornadoes and hurricanes. We expect the weather to be capricious and even occasionally violent, but we count on the Earth to remain solid; when it suddenly begins to tremble, shake, and roll, terra firma has betrayed us. It's no wonder, then, that even a little quake hits the top of the news. And when a big one happens, the news media race to the experts.

Two veteran observers of the best and worst the press can do when covering a quake are seismologists Chris Scholz and Klaus Jacob, professors at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Both have appeared extensively on local, national, and international TV and served as frequent interviewees in the print media. They are savvy spokesmen with good war stories.

Scholz learned an important lesson about the media early on. In the mid-1970s he and his colleagues developed a method they thought might work to predict earthquakes. It got a "huge press reaction," which took the young professor by surprise. To his fellow seismologists around the country, he appeared to be a celebrity seeker, "which," says Scholz, "is the last thing you want when you're trying to do serious science."

His lesson? "I learned that whenever I deal with the press, I'd better be on the managing side of this exchange...if I can," he says.

Scholz currently has a contract with CBS to do earthquake reporting. During the Northridge earthquake in Southern California he spent 14 hours at the studios, appearing on four programs. He's impressed by the network's commitment to good coverage: "They've set up a whole methodology to cover major earthquakes intelligently." CBS has even developed a proprietary computer graphics program called Seismo 3 that allows experts to create map animations of an earthquake wherever it occurs.

In spite of his long experience, Scholz still encounters glitches when dealing with the press. Recently, he and his colleagues at Lamont developed a theory that offers new insights into the forces that cause earthquakes (which he sometimes speaks of as "the earthquake switch") and an explanation for variations in the frequency of quakes in the zones where tectonic plates meet. A New York Times article on his work misunderstood his explanation of the dynamics of the switch and got it wrong. As goes the Times, Scholz found to his dismay, so goes the world. Other papers around the country picked up the story and dutifully repeated the same mistake.

Klaus Jacob's interests in understanding the effects of earthquakes on man-made structures are in part responsible for his media persona, which he describes as "Mr. Walking Doomsday Earthquake." In 1986, he was a founder and director of a National Science Foundation-funded organization, the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research, a consortium of 60 scientists from 28 universities. Among other activities, the group investigated the effects an earthquake of magnitude 6 (a moderate temblor) might have on New York City--and came up with an estimate of $10 billion to $25 billion in shaking damage to buildings alone. Earthquakes do occur in the Northeast, even if rarely. Seismologists estimate that a magnitude 5+ is a "200-year event," a 6 is a "600-year event," and a 7 (which would be devastating), "a 2,000-year event." The point for Jacob, though, is that no one knows when the next "event" will happen; it might be decades away or next week.

When the earthquake research consortium's work first became public, the press was "surprisingly quiet." But after a disastrous earthquake in Armenia in 1988, a local TV reporter went to Lamont for interviews with Jacob. The material ultimately was used to create a major news piece on the possibility of an earthquake in New York, airing in 12-minute segments on three consecutive nights. Thanks to the wonders of modern video editing, Jacob found his comments juxtaposed with others that were, from a science point of view, "somewhat reckless." "There were statements," recalls Jacob, "about the Lincoln Tunnel breaking like glass tubes and nuclear debris floating down the Hudson River."

He discovered another unpleasant result: Because the comments were so tightly edited together, many people (including colleagues) attributed other people's statements, including the most dramatic ones, to him. "My phone was jammed for days both with accusations of hypocrisy and sensationalism and [comments] saying, 'You really have done a great service here.'" Another outcome was that Jacob was invited to work on a committee to develop a seismic building code for NYC, a project that eventually would bear fruit.

More recently Jacob was the key interviewee and seismic expert for an extensive lead feature article in New York magazine (Dec. 11, 1995), once again on the possibilities and consequences of an earthquake in New York City. The piece opened with a full-page photo of Jacob.

Jacob is scornful of the article's technical shortcomings: "They mixed quotes together so that things didn't make sense or weren't true." And a copy editor didn't call him to check facts until the day before the piece went to press; he found himself on the phone for four hours trying to correct technical errors. When the story came out, Jacob discovered yet another wrinkle in the mysteries of attribution: Despite the writers' bylines, readers he speaks with inevitably refer to it as "his" article.

Another feature of the experience amuses and amazes Jacob. It turns out the writers of the New York magazine piece have been in touch with Hollywood about using their story as a springboard to screenplays for an earthquake disaster flick. Agents for the writers have been in touch with him about serving as a technical consultant, as has a book agent representing the local TV reporter. This reporter, with whom Jacob will no longer work, wrote a novel, The Big One, that features a character with a German shepherd and a heavy German accent (Jacob has the accent but not the dog).

Although Jacob's experiences with both print and television journalism have been "a mixed bag," as he puts it, he believes it's been worth it. It took three mayors and four building commissioners, but after 10 years "Mr. Walking Doomsday Earthquake" finally had the effect he wanted: "New York City now has a [seismic] building code and is retrofitting its bridges."

--John O. Green

Related links...

  • Lamont-Doherty Seismology, Geology and Tectonophysics Group

  • Lamont Cooperative Seismic Network

  • "Seismosurfing," collection of earthquake resources

  • Seismological Society of America

  • Seismo-Cam, KNBC-TV, Los Angeles

    JOHN O. GREEN is a science writer and new media developer whose articles have appeared in 21stC (Winter 1996), Wired, Popular Computing, and other publications; at Stanford University he served as co-founder, writer, and executive producer of the Stanford Video Media Group. He is working on a variety of new media projects for education.

    ILLUSTRATION: Howard Roberts

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