9 November 2010
Common mistakes in reporting on volcanic eruptions
Posted by Jessica Ball
Volcanoes have been getting a lot of media attention this year, which is not surprising; natural disasters make for exciting stories. But your average reporter is likely not going to hold themselves to the same standards of research that science writers do, which ends up being detrimental to everyone, including their readers. Part of this may be because natural disaster stories are quickly written and not well fact-checked in an effort to get them out quickly. But with the wealth of good information available from scientific institutions these days, it’s pretty pitiful that the people who write about geologic events can’t take a little time to do research about their subject matter.
I’ll point out a few of the more egregious errors that I’ve seen recently (and in the past):
1. Pyroclastic flows (at Merapi especially) have been described as clouds of hot gas. This is obviously leaving out some important components, as anyone could see from observing the photos of areas affected by the flows. Pyroclastic flows are clouds composed of hot ash, gases, and rocks, which can travel at high speeds. They are not just gas or just rocks (although gas eruptions do occur, as do rockfalls and debris flows).
2. Magma is the word for molten volcanic material before it erupts; lava is what it is called after it erupts (reaches the Earth’s surface.) Yes, it is confusing that there are two words for the same material, but they help make a distinction between parts of the eruption process. Magma actually combines melted rock, crystals, and gas; when it erupts and becomes lava, more crystals form and some of the gas is released.
3. Volcanoes do not smoke. An eruption plume is, like a pyroclastic flow, usually composed of gases, ash, and rocks. Ash (pulverized rock) accounts for the darkness of the plume, but there is no burning involved. (This confusion may be due to the different meanings of ash; in geology, ash describes a size range of volcanic particles, while in other situations the word ash is used to describe the byproducts of burning organic material.)
4. One of the first questions that volcanologists get when a volcano is acting up is “When will it erupt?” – and it’s not a question that they can answer.Volcanologists forecast eruptions, but cannot predict them. Forecasting events means that volcanologists decide on the possibility that a particular type of volcanic phenomena will occur, but this operates in much the same way that a weather forecast does – with percentages and possibilities arrived at by observing all the available data and using the experience of the scientists involved. Because volcanic eruptions are natural processes, there is always an element of uncertainty involved in evaluating their potential behavior (which is why it’s inane to try and prosecute scientists for not predicting something, as with the Aquila earthquake). Naturally, we wish we could predict natural disasters, because that would mean that fewer people would be hurt or killed by them – and that’s one of the main goals of the scientists who study geological hazards.
5. Eruptions can last for a short or long time. It’s not at all unusual for an eruption to go on for days, weeks, months, or years. (Kilauea in Hawaii, which has been erupting since 1983, is an excellent example.) A volcano may be considered to be “erupting” even if the activity is relatively minor (a small lava flow rather than explosions, for example). So, the lengths of eruptions like the ongoing one at Merapi, or the one at Eyjafjallajökull earlier this year, should not be surprising.
6. Just because a natural disaster (such as an eruption) occurs around the same time as another one (like an earthquake or tsunami or another eruption) does not mean they are connected. Often such disasters occur in areas of the world, like Indonesia, that are prone to multiple types of dangerous geological phenomena – but proximity in time or geography does not mean that one event caused or was caused by the other.
This is by no means an exhaustive guide to writing about eruptions or other natural disasters, but I hope that it serves as a bit of a primer, and especially as a reminder to do a little research before you publish. It should be a goal of all news sources to report things as accurately as possible, and doing background research to make sure you understand your subject matter is a big part of that.
Addendum: In response to one of the comments below, I think it’s useful to mention a few websites with basic, correct information about natural disasters in general (and volcanic eruptions specifically). Fact-checking should not be difficult, given the vast internet resources available nowadays, but knowing whether a website is credible is definitely a hurdle for journalists with little science training. These websites are also featured in the blog sidebar.
- United States Geological Survey Natural Hazards Webpage – Earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, coastal and marine hazards, geomagnetism program
- USGS Volcano Hazards Program – The “Volcano FAQ” is an excellent starting place for background research
- USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory Education and Outreach
- Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program – Great for information on specific volcanoes, current activity and eruption histories
- Michigan Technological University Volcanoes Page
- Stromboli Online – Another great resource for information about specific volcanoes (especially those in Europe)
- The Volcanism Blog – In-depth coverage of ongoing eruptions, with press releases from specific volcano observatories
- Eruptions – Very up-to-date coverage of current eruptions, with contributions from readers (often who live in the affected areas)
Jessica, you just made me life much easier! Thanks!
Glad to help! Stands to reason that whatever irks me would be doing the same for you. Hopefully some media folks other than the geobloggers will see this…
I’ll try to remember these. Might be useful in my work. 😎
Oh, I don’t think you’ll have any problems with that… 😉
A great guide for journalists. The last bit, especially! I’ve seen too often people trying to tie natural events together than have nothing to do with one another except for proximity in time.
Thanks for a post I hope many will read. You could add that “molten lava” as has been seen in many pictures captions is much like “molten water”, and should be replaced by “molten rock” or just plain “lava” 🙂
Keep up the good job!
This was _so_ much needed; at Eruptions blog I and others answered the connection question of point 6 with a flat negative, over and over – and about five minutes later there was already somebody, “Yabut…”.
Oooh ! great! what about the size of the magma chambers! that’s another goody that always gets them.
Excellent job, I couldn’t have said this better. This should be seen by a lot of people, and I will post some links to it.
I like the premise of this article, and it would be useful for more journalists to take on board some of these points. However, I feel that some of the points (no 2 & 3, plus the forecast v prediction aspect of no 4) are a little to caught up in volcanology pedantics, and not really relavant points for the understanding of the general public
Thanks for the comment. I can understand how getting into detailed volcanological terminology might be unnecessary for most news coverage, but the points I brought up are relevant because they really are extremely basic. The difference between lava and magma is a concept that shows up even in children’s books on the volcanoes, and saying that a volcano is smoking is really just plain wrong. Paying attention to those two really is a matter of being correct before it becomes an issue of being too detailed.
I will grant you that the forecast vs. prediction topic is slightly more advanced, but I definitely think it’s relevant because it’s a widespread misconception about what volcanologists can do, and it can skew public expectations. People can grasp the concept that their weatherman can’t absolutely predict whether it will rain or not; it’s not too much of a stretch for them to start thinking the same way about Earth scientists.
Dear Smith, I fear these things are important indeed, and an important part of understanding. The difference between a volcano that emits “smoke” and one that emits volcanic ash is that the latter threatens to bury its surroundings under ash, and – as pretty much of the world now knows – it can cause disruptions to air traffic, which you won’t obtain with “smoke”. These are sensitive little differences in terminology, which in the real world make very big differences.
The issue of “predicting vs. forecasting” is a very important one in the moment that you have to deal with a population of several million that still today would rather want volcanologists to tell them “you can still watch the soccer game on Saturday evening, but then you got to get out because the volcano’s gonna blow a few hours later”. Rather this than “there is a high probability that there will be an eruption within the next few weeks to months”.
And, unfortunately, volcanoes often don’t give clear signs, or they change their plans in the last possible moment – one day a volcano seems to be about to erupt violently the next day, but then two months pass before it finally does it. That’s fine if it happens in Alaska (as at Redoubt in January-March 2009) but it’s definitely not when the volcano is called Vesuvius, or Mount Rainier, or Fujiyama.
Considering that worldwide about half a billion people live near potentially dangerous volcanoes, these issues might be quite relevant for the understanding of the general public.
Thank you very much for writing about this topic, while I was working for a Geophysical company as a Radar Technician I became extremely interested in how both earthquakes and volcanic activity are somewhat tied together. Since I am not a scientist it is important that the reporters do some research on what they are writing about since I have been misled before by a story.
Thanks again Jessica.
I agree that this should be essential reading for journalists: but can I put in a word for the poor maligned journos? In a fast moving news story they have little time for background research, and in any case they know they are writing for an audience who know even less about volcanoes than they do. An audience who will be bemused by unfamiliar scientific terms. (How often does ‘detached pyroclastic surge’ come up in everyday conversation -present company excepted?). Moreover they have to get their points across in the minimum number of words. In item 1, “Hot gas” would be a decent popular description of a surge cloud which is basically hot gas and dust. True, inaccurate for a pyroclastic FLOW proper, but I suspect most PF fatalities are caused by surge clouds And on point 3: “Smoke” might be scientifically invalid, but in one word it will give the reader a vivid mental picture. A journalist might reasonably ask why ash and cinders, as in cinder cone, are OK while smoke is not, since they too seem to imply burning
My personal bugbear is the term ‘molten lava’ It’s a bit of Hollywood-style hyping which as a term is usually unnecessary (if lava is flowing it is obviously in a largely melted condition) and is little more than a cliche for reporters wanting to spice up dry copy
“Cloud of Hot Gas”: The main Problem IMO is that a cloud is more or less stationary moved by wind. Couldn’t be much more wrong.
I don’t think that “Smoke” will give the reader a more vivid picture than “Ash Cloud”. (Beside: there usually is a picture beside it in the news anyway…)
I agree that a fast-moving story might not give a journalist time for a lot of background research (I think I mentioned it), but it only takes a minute or two to do an internet search. That does, however, bring up the problem of credible sources, so I’m going to mention the volcano websites I have listed in the sidebar as a good starting point.
What are the odds that your average reporter will go first to wikipedia? That is the problem, he/she will find “pyroclastic surge” defined as a ‘fluidised mass of hot gas and rock fragments…etc’ Easy to shorten that to “hot gas”, since the rest would likely be blue-pencilled by the sub-editor careful of word-count. Educating the Fourth Estate to reliable sources will be a hard road, more so in that volcanic crises are (thankfully) fairly rare
So the answer is to go and improve the Wikipedia article on pyroclastic flows – that is, after all, how Wikipedia is supposed to work.
Eight; but that’s OUR job, not the reporter’s
As another example of a long eruption, I’d point out Tavurvur in Papua New Guinea. The volcano has been spitting out sand fairly regularly since 1996. And of course there is the champion of long eruptions: Stromboli has been spitting out molten rock since at least some time in the history of the Roman empire.
some days ago, the main italian TV newspaper claimed “lava flows” for some merapi victims…..
Dear Mr Smith,
A trained journalist should be familiar with the basic communications theory of “sender – receiver” and that the sender is always responsible for how the receiver interprests the message. Here, the sender is the vulcanologist and the receiver the general public. Which role does the journalist have? That of the re-transmitter, and as such it becomes incubent on the journalist to accurately understand and re-transmit. I’m pretty certain, and I think that you will agree that a journalist who sent in the following reports would be in trouble:
* Microsoft lose $11.2 Bn in one day! (real news – the share has dropped five points on Wall Street)
* Red Sox beat White Sox three sets to two. Great touchdown by McIntyre seals late game.
* Al Quaeda will bomb Times Square today CIA-representative fears.
The point I’m trying to make is that in most fields of human endeavour, journalists “learn the lingo” of what they are supposed to report and – with the exceptions of politics and celebrities – mostly succeed in reporting their news accurately and without distortions. Why not so with vulcanology?
Henrik: sport. business and politics stories are the everyday fare of reporters. they don’t even need to think about the terminology. Newsworthy eruptions are pretty rare, 90 per cent of eruptions go unreported in the papers, your average hack (specialist science correspondents excepted) might never have to get to grips with volcanological terminology. Can you wonder that some of them slip up? And even if they get it right, newspaper stories are often edited and given more perceived ‘punch’ by sub-editors farther up the chain. If serious eruptions happened every week (heaven forbid) the accuracy of the reports would soon improve
In regards to #5, the media is hardly going to tone down their approach to reporting on natural hazards by mentioning how ‘typical’ the eruption is. That doesn’t fit into fear-mongering narratives. Neither is showing how per-capita fatalities have not increased from the last hazard of the same type, even though volume has.
Great post, Jessica! I like that your explanation is both accurate and accessible to non-scientists. Not everyone can do both!
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