Making Decisions When the Media are Too Ignorant to Ask the Right Questions

With the threat of a nuclear meltdown in Japan, many of us preppers were frustrated with the media and the lack of information they were giving out. It’s bad enough that today’s journalists know next to nothing about how to properly create and type a story. I mean, the lack of punctuation alone is laughable, but mainly, they seemed to have forgotten how to answer the basic questions of Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.

For most articles today, even in the most revered of news sources, you can often go through the entire article and still not really know what’s happening or why. When the Fukushima reactors started to have thermal runaway, they (US “journalists”) should have been finding out and relating to the US audiences what the potential danger was and what we need to be on the lookout for, in detail. For example, I wanted to know:

  • How much radiation was being leaked into the upper air currents, in real numbers that we could use,
  • What the composition of isotopes we were likely to see,
  • What the path of this radioactive cloud was likely to take, given upper air current,
  • When and Where it was going to likely arrive, and
  • What the levels were likely to be when they reached the west coast of the US.

If there was a “journalist” that tracked down this information and reported on it, I didn’t see it.

It would be easy to discount this lack of information simply as “journalists” thinking that we Americans can’t handle the truth or the real hard facts, but I think it’s more likely that today’s journalists and reporters are just ignorant. I don’t mean to say they’re stupid, rather simply too ignorant about what they’re writing about to know what information to dig deep for.

Here’s a small example, take this local news story: “Radiation Detectors Triggered In Arizona.”

They simply took an excerpt from the Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency (ARRA) and ran with it:

“The average background radiation can range from 100-300 millirems per year,” according to Aubrey Godwin, director of the ARRA. “The amount of additional radiation we are seeing in Arizona is less than 0.1 millirem. Such low concentrations of iodine-131 do not pose a public health threat to Arizonans.”

They didn’t bother to run the numbers themselves. Whatever happen to researching to make sure the facts are correct?

Here’s what I’m talking about. If you go to the ARRA news release of how much radiation that they are detecting, the largest amount of radiation detected is 0.69 pCi/M3 of Iodine-131. Actually, my first issue with this is that the use of Curies and Becquerels is difficult for the non-geek population (which is just about everyone) to convert into something that can be related to, like Grays, Sieverts or even the old standby of REMs. Granted, 99% of the population doesn’t know what those terms mean either, but for those of us preparedness-minded enough to learn about this sort of thing, it makes it easier to deal with.

In fact, I can make a case that it would be much better if they would use terms that even a few of us (preppers, survivalists, etc.) can understand, because in this case, it was clear that the danger was too low to be concerned with, and we could have easily related that information to our friends and family. But I digress…

Because I wanted to know exactly how much absorbed radiation 0.69 pCi would be, I searched the Internet and my books and notes for how to convert Curies into an absorbed dose measurement. I couldn’t find one, not until a friend suggested WolframAlpha (which is a really cool website in itself). If you click on that link, you’ll see at the bottom, that it actually has a corresponding quantity in milliGrays, 7.7×10^-14 mGy/hr (milligrays per hour) for a given isotope at 1 meter. When you type into the WolframAlpha search bar: 7.7×10^-14, you find it’s a really small number.

I have a conversion utility on my iPhone that will convert from the various radiation units (Grays, Sieverts, Rads, REM, etc.) that’s really handy for quick calculations. Ignoring the 10^-14 portion of the number, mainly because the conversion app can’t handle numbers that long, if we convert 7.7 mGy, we find that this equates to 0.77 rads. Then you can calculate 0.77×10^-14 and find that it’s 0.0000000000000077 Rads, which is pretty much the same as 0.0000000000000077 REM, or 0.0000000000077 millirems.

Now, look back to the article, “The amount of additional radiation we are seeing in Arizona is less than 0.1 millirem.” I’d say that was an understatement, as the real amount was far less than the figure given. Even if you didn’t know anything about radiation, seeing a number like 0.0000000000077, you instinctively know that it’s a very low amount.

Another issue that really peeved me was that no one was making the distinction that radiation on the inside of your body is much more damaging than when outside your body. Or the fact that even small amounts of Iodine-131 in children is really bad for them. Where was the investigative report that dug into “What You Need To Know” about radiation and children? I didn’t see it, did you?

So, this brings me to the point about this post. How are you to make decisions when you can’t get the information you need from the authorities? Are you simply going to trust them to be forthwith at the appropriate time? I don’t know about you, but I’m not putting the safety of my family in the hands of a bureaucrat.

The first thing you should do is educate yourself. Learn everything that you need to know about a subject and create an informational database that you can reference when you need to. When I first got interested in survival and getting prepared back in the 1980s, my big concern was surviving the Russian nukes (wasn’t everyone’s?). I read everything I could get my hands on, which back then, mainly meant borrowing books from the local library and reading and rereading. Computers weren’t readily available or affordable, so building your database meant either handwriting notes or photocopying.

Today, it’s easier than ever to compile a list of information and store it for offline, online and mobile use, but you still need to have the fundamental understanding of a topic to know how to filter the information that is put out. At the least, you need to know what the missing information is and extrapolate from what’s available.

Equally useful as having a personal offline database is the multitudes of online resources immediately available, assuming you have an Internet connection. However, the sheer volume of sites that provide information is also part of the problem, in that you need a way to quickly assimilate information. My preferred method is using an RSS aggregator. I use NetNewsWire, which is a Mac-only application, but there are many others for both PC and Mac. There’s also Google Reader, if you’re looking for an online RSS reader.

An RSS Aggregator will take the RSS feed of the websites that you normally visit and compile all the articles and posts into one location. You can then quickly scroll through a large number of articles without having to go to each and every website. What used to take me two to three hours of checking out my daily sites, I can now do in an hour or less, depending on how many articles are there since the last time I looked. Most readers have a search feature, so you can search for specific keywords, making it even faster to zero in on information. When you find a new website that you want to monitor, simply add it to your aggregator.

You can even sign up for a service like Instapaper and store any articles there for later reading. This comes in really handy when you want to save articles so you can read them when you have more time. This is what I do while I’m at work. When I get a few minutes free, I will go through the aggregated RSS feeds to keep on top of what’s happening in the world. When I come to an article that I want to read, but don’t have the time right then, I send it to Instapaper and go back to it later.

When a disaster or crisis event happens, you’ll have to make decision based on the information available. As we’ve seen, though, the distinct lack of accurate information can cause you to over-react or under-react. By learning what you can now, developing an offline informational database and creating a system that allows you to parse vast amounts of online information, you will be better able to make decisions for an appropriate response to the situation.

When it comes down to is that you are the only person you can trust to make the best decision for you and your family.

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