Tuesday, 3 September 2013

In which we learn why I get upset with journalists sometimes

There was an article on CBC last week which really upset me. What they were talking about was - to put it midly - outrageous! The author(s) talk about an underground fire which has been burning for close to a year in the little town of Eagle, Alaska, close to the border to the Yukon. The headline says:

"Mysterious underground fire perplexes Alaska town

Possible volcano or shale gas fire has been burning for more than a year"

The whole thing is accompanied by this photograph:

The people of Eagle, Alaska, are getting worried about an underground fire 40 kilometres outside of town that's been burning and spewing noxious smoke for more than a year.
Source: CBC.ca
For those of you who don't want to read the "whole" article, here's the one line synopsis: An underground fire has been burning approximately 40 km outside of Eagle since September last year. Now they go on speculating about the cause of the fire, and here's where I stumbled (after stumbling over the headline and subheader, of course...): 
"Aerial photos suggest a volcano forming but geologists say it's likely an underground shale gas fire."

Excuse me?? So geologists say it's a shale fire, but "aerial photos suggest a volcano"? Where did they get that statement? Sure, let's not believe the geologists who clearly have no idea what they're doing, let's get a random statement that has no scientific basis whatsoever. Or maybe it does and the authors just haven't provided enough background info? Sloppy journalism, either way. So I decided to investigate a bit more, see whether maybe that statement came from information that didn't make it into the article instead. After all I was really curious to see who decided that this a "possible volcano" (title...) forming here. I didn't even have to look far to discover that this sentence was even more ridiculous than I originally thought. There is a link to an interview with a local park ranger embedded next to the article. So I went and clicked on it, and sat through the entire 8 minute and 20 second interview by the CBC host with the park ranger. Sure enough, at 5:51 the host asks whether it is the oil shale that's burning, and the park ranger replies:

"It is. It is the oil shale that is burning"

So, uhm, there's somebody who has dealt with this thing for 11 months, probably done a lot of investigation, met with various groups of experts, surely we can just completely ignore her crystal clear statement and suggest that there is a VOLCANO FORMING??? And then in the end, when it turns out it isn't, maybe we can go ahead and sue the scientists for providing false information??? Granted, that's a bit of a stretch and I definitely don't want to get into this debate, but really CBC, I would have hoped you're just a tad less sensation-seeking and a tiny bit more on the credible journalism side. Apparently I was wrong... This is exactly the reason why many scientists really dislike talking to the media. Statements get turned and twisted and taken out of context just to potentially attract one more reader/viewer/listener. The public is mislead with information that is clearly wrong. It's so sad! Wouldn't it have been much nicer of the author to do his/her/their homework, go on the internet, and for example do a really quick search on where the volcanoes of this world are located: 

modified, original source: USGS
 All the red dots are volcanoes, and the black lines are plate boundaries. The white star shows where Eagle, Alaska, is. Yep, definitely doesn't look like there should be any volcanoes nearby. But who knows? But nope, there's also no signs of lava coming out of that fire. And yep, Eagle, Alaska, used to be home to miners in the area, it's a region rich in geological resources, so uhm, without even being an expert or something I would say a shale fire sounds pretty likely? But even if it really really is a volcano, how about giving a bit more background on where that info is coming from? Spending 5 more minutes (and I don't even get paid to do this, unlike some other people...) on this magic thing called "internet" I found this article on Alaska Dispatch. Much better researched, with lots of background info, it does what an article like this is supposed to do: It's catching, interesting, it educates the public about an interesting phenomenon and provides information relevant for locals about whether or not they ought to worry about the gases emitted by the fire. Seems almost like the CBC writer found the Alaska Dispatch article, decided to make life really simple, took the info out of context and wrote a short but potentially catching (ridiculous) blurp and called it a day... Just saying.  Again, I'm exaggerating, but I'm SO UPSET about this! Journalists out there, please take a second, talk to a scientist or somebody else who knows about the topic you're writing about, and then do not, I repeat, DO NOT ignore what they say but write a proper, well researched, educating and still entertaining piece of news. Sounds like a challenge? Well, maybe it's time to look for a different job then... Since there is one person who actually did that, let me take the time and end on a positive note: Great job, Ben Anderson at Alaska Dispatch!