Does global online media access help or hinder those in a crisis?

Today I’m posing a question – does access to global online media help or hinder people in a crisis? Does it benefit them by providing highly balanced and free views from across the world, or does the avalanche of opinion and constantly changing content have the potential to create panic that is detrimental to recovery?

In many world crises today we revere the power of the global media and social networks in getting the truth out there quickly, especially when reporting from conflicts in regions where the media isn’t free and stifled by state control. But there are occasions in my opinion where global media power can be less helpful.

The people of Japan have now been informed by authorities that tap water is unsafe for children under the age of one, due to higher than recommended traces of radioactive iodine. This morning’s Radio 4 Today programme included an interview about this with a Japanese mother who said that it was access to media reports from Europe and the US that made it hard to know what sources to trust (access it here – the 8.23am segment). The suggestion was that had she just been responding to single source information from the Japanese authorities and media there would be a greater likelihood of accepting advice and following instructions. In her case she had chosen to stop giving tap water to her older child too, as I would, despite being told there was ‘minimal risk’.

The web and rise of social networks mean that wherever we are in the world we can tap into endless news and opinion on major world topics at any time, from the highly informed and relevant to the ignorance of hearsay that has a tendency to spread like wildfire. There’s no certainty for the Japanese public on whether their water really is safe but in my view, access to too many opinions about the crisis could serve to reduce trust amongst the Japanese community at a time when they need certainty to cling to. A panic over water supplies, fuelled by the global media’s freedom to report and ensuing mass speculation, could put Japan in a deeper crisis.

It’s true that online and social media plays a critical role in spreading the word and the ‘truth’ in many times of crisis, but often I think it goes too far in the dissection and speculation of possibilities which to the average recipient creates confusion rather than informed knowledge. Do we just need the news, not news about the news, then views about the news?

What do you think? Can global media reporting go too far and become detrimentally confusing for people trying to survive a crisis?

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