WHO SHALL WE BLAME FOR THIS PANIC
Hello! Before I was a kindly Our State magazine writer, I was an occasional TV station blogger. In 2008, after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike…
Hello! Before I was a kindly Our State magazine writer, I was an occasional TV station blogger. In 2008, after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike came ashore near Houston, shut down refineries on the Gulf Coast, and stopped the flow of gasoline into the Colonial Pipeline that supplies most of central North Carolina, I got snarky. There were long lines at gas stations, because people were freaking out, and so I sent reporters and photographers to gather pictures of the lines, and then we broadcast them, and even more people freaked out. A real life feedback loop!
Guess what’s happening again?
Welp! Seeing as how Hurricane Harvey has taken an even bigger toll on Houston than Ike and Gustav, figured I’d share this old thing I wrote in September 2008 for a WCNC-TV blog site that’s now offline (hereby destroying other blogs I wrote about trying to rat-proof my food for a camping trip to the Florida Keys, and another one detailing my contraction of a form of pneumonia most commonly found in prison). The guy I talked to then was spot on, but the blame-the-media thing seems… quaint, seeing as how Twitter and Facebook really hadn’t become as pervasive as they are today. Today, people blame social media. And the regular media.
Anyway, everything is going to be fine, says me, a trusted public figure, speaking calmly:
Sometimes, people knock the media. They say we hold things back. But every once in a while, we get e-mails like the one we got today:
“PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE STOP SAYING THERE IS A GAS SHORTAGE REGARDLESS IF THERE IS ONE.”
Or this one:
“I really feel that if the news media STOPS TALKING ABOUT THE GAS SITUATION, all these long lines would STOP!!!!”
That got me wondering. I took a count of all of the e-mails we’ve received on the gas story since 10 p.m. Wednesday, and arranged them by general topic:
7.5% — Please look into this story deeper
22.5% — Man, I can’t believe this!
52.5% — I know where gas is (or isn’t)
17.5% — Shame on you, media!
OK, we’re not always the most popular people. Surveys of respectable jobs often rank journalists just above car salesmen and members of Congress. You don’t always like us. We know.
But is the media responsible for panic here? “These reports are only fueling the fire and causing additional panic and rush to the pumps,” writes viewer Josh Osburn. “Lines at the pumps didn’t start until yesterday after all the local news channels started reporting that ‘gas stations are running out of gas.’”
I could give one of those standard media lines: We report what people in the know are telling us. We didn’t force those people to get into their cars and line up around the block. We just showed up with our cameras when they did.
Instead, I’m going to defer to an expert.
“The current situation is that, when you pass gas stations, as far as I can tell personally, about four out of five have no gas,” says Dr. Joe Whitmeyer, a sociology professor at UNC Charlotte. “Maybe some people are informed about that from the media, but I think people find that out anyway.”
We didn’t tell him to say that. Seriously.
Whitmeyer says it’s the lack of information that can cause a panic. “We don’t know where we’re going to be able to get gas or when we’re going to be able to get gas, but we’re looking for information wherever we can get it,” he says. “And so, we look to see what other people are doing, and if we see people line up, we think ‘well, this is telling me something.’ Maybe I won’t be able to find gas somewhere else.”
And so, we wait in line. Because everybody else is doing it.
“Individually, these things make sense, but collectively, they don’t,” Dr. Whitmeyer says. “What’s good for me is causing trouble for everyone else. You can’t expect any one person to say ‘Well, I’m not going to top [off my tank] because that’s what creates the line.’ Everybody thinks in terms of themselves.”
Panic, then, is really what happens when we all begin to worry about the future at the same time. “If we knew what it was going to be like tomorrow and the day after,” says Whitmeyer, “then I don’t think there’d be nearly as much of a tendency to panic.”
You may not be able to stop a panic in its tracks, but Dr. Whitmeyer says you can do things to slow it down. Here’s the key: you have to be some sort of trusted public figure.
If you are, tell people to remain calm, rational, and patient. Tell them when this crisis will be over. Be honest. Get information out there. Thursday afternoon, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory said a large shipment of gas should be coming in by Friday. North Carolina Governor Mike Easley says in a few days, this, too, shall pass.
The problem, according to Dr. Whitmeyer, is that people in power are always telling us to remain calm, rational and patient. “I think that the problem is [that many people] don’t believe it,” he says. “It doesn’t even count as information because you think it’s probably not true.”
And that’s the problem with the future. We know what will happen, sort of. But we can never tell with exact certainty what tomorrow will bring. So we worry about it today.
Sociologists, for the record, don’t really tap their fingers together in nefarious glee when things like this happen. Besides, Dr. Whitmeyer says, he can’t do a precise study on this sort of thing anyway. There are just too many variables. “We can go out and study them under more controlled situations. And when one actually rolls around then we can understand it better.”
He stops and chuckles. “Of course, we can’t prevent it very well, but we can understand it.”