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Media blowing an opportunity to educate the public about subduction zones

September 13, 2007

As you all know, there has been a flurry of seismic activity offshore of Sumatra the past few days, and with it a flurry of media reports. The reporting about basic stats such as location, time, magnitude, effects on lives and property, and fears of possible tsunamis is pretty good. If you are looking for this essential information about the event, you can typically find it in the mainstream media reports.

But, they are missing an opportunity to educate their readers about the geologic conditions that lead to the seismic activity. Perhaps I’m biased, but I don’t think it is too detailed to include fundamental plate tectonic concepts in this kind of reporting. If this information is included every time these events occur, then the general public will get accustomed to it over time. It will become conventional wisdom. Meteorologists discuss low and high pressure cells every day, shouldn’t we also discuss convergent, divergent, and transform plate boundaries?

I could envision very simplified (but still accurate) block diagrams or cross sections showing the subduction zone. Instead of showing just a political map (like the NYT article here), why not show a topographic-bathymetric map? This CNN.com report does mention that this region is a subduction zone, but I think we can do better. If the general public sees the same diagrams and visual explanations each time a major event occurs, then their knowledge and understanding would improve over time.

I’m being a little nit-picky…overall, many of the news agencies do a decent job of reporting the necessary information. But, there is definitely room for improvement. Photographs of collapsed buildings do play a role, but those images ought to be connected with images that represent the fundamental understanding of what causes these events.

This quote from the CNN report demonstrates how experience can improve knowledge and thus preparedness.

The relatively light loss of life can be attributed to national and provincial governments being battle-tested by a string of powerful earthquakes over the last three years, Bakrie said.

I think we could also do this with the fundamental understanding.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2007 3:28 pm

    Yes, yes, yes!

    I get annoyed when reports of subduction zone earthquakes explain them by saying “Sumatra lies on the Ring of Fire.” That’s such a non-explanation. (And it also doesn’t describe the location of Sumatra geographically, either.) I would rather have people realize that there’s a relationship between earthquakes in Iran and in Pakistan and in Sumatra, and there’s a reason why there are volcanoes in Sumatra and not in Los Angeles.

  2. September 13, 2007 11:15 pm

    I think it is less about the media blowing it than about this information not being provided in a clear, media friendly way by the institutions the media get their info from.

    For example, I think the USGS is just one of the institutions that do a great job of providing timely information and maps to the media and general public. However, I find their tectonic summary information a little too technical:

    The direction of relative plate motion is oblique to the orientation of the plate boundary offshore of the west coast of Sumatra. The component of plate-motion perpendicular to the boundary is accommodated by thrust faulting on the offshore plate-boundary. Much of the component of plate motion parallel to the plate boundary is accommodated by strike-skip faulting on the Sumatra fault, which is inland on Sumatra proper.

    I think providing this information is definitely a step in the right direction, something that is by no means easy to do, and probably not feasible in near-real time (requires a geologist/tectonicist, not a computer). Maybe if the language was a little less technical, the media would take it up.

  3. magma permalink
    September 14, 2007 6:48 am

    Bah – they have countless special news journalists for politics, why not special news journalists for rudimentary science?

    I’m with you, Brian. They could do a lot better.

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