Friday, September 10, 2010

My Profession--News--Embarrasses Me: The San Bruno Gas Pipeline Explosion

Once again I am puzzled over how news coverage works -- in the case of the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion yesterday (Sept 9), the coverage in all media continues to be, the next day, entirely focused on the fireballs, the burning/burnt houses, the victim stories. 

My early questions include: *What* high-pressure gas pipeline? What's that, and why is it running through the middle of our neighborhoods? Are there other like this? What's the story on 24-inch pipes of fuel being transported into our urban areas? There's got to be an interesting background story on that, at least. 

But no, apparently not. Or apparently it's so well hidden that our friends in the news media haven't been able to dig it out yet. (One reporter, at least, knew a little: He pointed out that the natural gas for our water heaters comes to California from Texas in pipelines like these. Wow, interesting - tell me more! Nope.)

And as we all know, if there is an obvious immediate question that arises during a news incident, and you, the reporter, don't have an answer yet, the SOP is to pretend there *is* no question -- to ignore it, not to mention that you are aware there is a question. Just in case the listeners/viewers/readers don't think of it - that way they won't think you're an idiot for not being able to answer the question. Apparently techniques like "Questions arise about these pipelines--what are they, how do they work, why are they under our streets?--and we're digging into those answers for you right now" are unknown to these reporters and news editors.

Except of course *everybody in your audience* wonders about the item in question, and thinks you're idiots for very obviously and publicly not thinking of such obvious questions!

It makes me crazy.

Sometime in the coming days we'll get in-depth reports on the pipelines -- done in the breathless alarmist style "Are we in constant danger from these pipelines which run EVERYWHERE!?!?! When will some politician or government agency do something to protect us?!?!"

It should be easy - I did see one snippet (three paragraphs) this morning in which they found a government agency 'in charge' of this stuff, who mentioned that dozens of pipelines like this break, catch fire, blow up, etc., and dozens of people die each year. Oh. We didn't know. Because it wasn't News yet.

So stand by for the second-order fallout from this story: For the next six to nine months, every time a pipeline breaks, catches fire, burns, and/or kills anyone, anywhere in the country -- it will be on the front page. It's been happening for years, you understand, without making the front page -- but now it will be top-of-the-news leaders. 

Making you think it's a brand-new, horrible, scary problem. Rather than the same old problem we've only now decided can generate headlines. 

And, as happened with the LA Freeway Shootings of the early 1980s -- remember those? -- after nine months or a year, when the novelty wears off and everyone gets bored with having Yet Another Pipeline Explosion story, it will fade from the front page to the back pages, and eventually back to non-coverage, where it has always been. 

This is what happened with the LA Freeway Shooting stories. After several months of hyper coverage of every freeway shooting, some reporter happen to look it up and find that there have been dozens of these things every year -- for decades. But they had never covered it before, and after a year or so, we all got bored so they stopped covering it again. The LA Freeway Shootings continue -- coverage doesn't -- we're tired of this story -- what else ya got? That's what will happen with this story.

The oil pipelines story might last a little longer than that because the politicians can more effectively jump on this with both feet -- by the end of the day today, I expect, at least one govt agency will announce hearings, and at least one pol will propose important new laws to Make Sure This Doesn't Happen Again. (And issue press releases pointing out that The Other Political Party Supports Exploding Pipelines.) And that government agency that's supposed to be in charge of these things but obviously failed to do its job? They'll get much-increased funding.

Sigh.... My profession (journalism) embarrasses me.

BTW Here are a few related links:

Snopes, on a gas pipeline explosion:
Wikipedia list of pipeline failures worldwide:
Detailed somewhat technical discussion of the national (US) network of gas transport pipelines:

Now you can be better informed -- or better informed than your local news reader, anyway...


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