Communications in Slow-Moving Crises

Thursday, November 18, 2010
5-7 p.m.
4-231 (bulding 4, room 231)


Governments, corporations, and communities plan for sudden crises: the White House drafts strong responsive rhetoric for the next terrorist attack; Toyota runs reassuring national TV spots within hours of a product recall; and 32 Massachusetts towns successfully publicize water distribution sites following a water main rupture.

But some crises are complex, not amenable to news flashes and emergency warnings.  Like the housing collapse or the recent Gulf oil spill, these crises don’t fit traditional media frameworks. Because they are slow-moving, simmering rather than boiling dramas, all our media struggle both rhetorically and technologically to cover them.

With government regulators weak, corporations still focused on the bottom line, and communities adapting to structural change, this Communications Forum asks: What new media tools and strategies can be used to help everyone better prepare for the unique communications challenges of slow-moving crises?


Abrahm Lustgarten is a reporter for ProPublica whose recent work focuses on oil and gas industry practices. He is the author of the book China’s Great Train: Beijing’s Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet.

Andrea Pitzer is editor of Nieman Storyboard, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University that looks at how storytelling works in every medium.

Rosalind Williams is the Dibner Professor for the History of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. She has written three books as well as essays and articles about the emergence of a predominantly human-built world and its implications for human life.

Moderator: Thomas Levenson is head of Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT.

Co-sponsor: The Center for Future Civic Media


An audio recording of Communications on Slow-Moving Crises is available.


A downloadable podcast of Communications in Slow-Moving Crises is available.


Video of Communications in Slow-Moving Crises is available.


[This is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript.]

By M. Flourish Klink

Photos by Greg Peverill-Conti

How can citizens be informed about urgent problems that are ongoing and cumulative, such as global warning, the long-term consequences of which may be devastating but for which the immediate effects seem modest or even invisible? Is traditional journalism the best way to report on such slow-moving crises? Andrew Whitacre, communications manager for the Center for Future Civic Media, posed these questions during his opening remarks.

Rosalind Williams

Rosalind Williams pointed out that journalists deal with short-term events as they happen, whereas historians try to achieve a sort of distance in time. As for the term “crisis,” it shares the same root as the word “certain.” It means a turning point, a decisive point when change happens, for better or worse. Hence, the word “crisis” combined with the term “slow-moving” is an oxymoron. This fact tells us that something is happening that has never happened before: we don’t have words to properly describe what we are calling a “slow-moving crisis.” According to Leo Marx, the term for this kind situation is a “semantic void.”

This line of reasoning leads to a question: What current experiences make us need the phrase "slow-moving crisis"? According to Williams, two contrasting developments require this paradoxical term.  First, our sense of history as a “long duration” has been challenged or even undermined:  environmental change, for example, no longer takes centuries, but merely decades. That is an incredible change in the way we imagine historical change.  Second, a kind of deceleration is also taking place.  In the past certain major “events” came to a conclusion at a certain point, but today they often fail to end decisively and extend into an indefinite future.  Examples include major financial crises, the war in Afghanistan, the presidential election of 2000.

Williams believes we are living “in a new historical medium.”  The Malthusian “density of human presence on the planet speeds up environmental affairs and slows down political affairs.” We must resist the idea that technology is driving these changes: the sheer number of people is.  We are not dealing with the question of whether journalists should report things differently; we are dealing with history unfolding in an entirely different way. Crises are immanent rather than imminent, and therefore they are extremely difficult to understand.

Abrahm Lustgarten

Abrahm Lustgarten began by describing ProPublica, the organization he works for, a non-profit organization focused on investigative journalism. ProPublica supports innovative and long-term reporting projects, some of which aim to clarify slow-moving crises. In the case of the BP oil spill, for example, instead of undertaking daily coverage of the effort to cap the well and minimize the environmental damage, ProPublica decided to investigate and report on BP’s complex history and how this should affect our understanding of the company’s responsibility for the catastrophe.

It took about six months to fully report on this issue, and ProPublica delved deeply. It was very difficult for them to stay committed to their focus, although there were many other desirable directions in which to go.  They had to reject the attention-grabbing daily headlines and remain disciplined, focusing on the project they had committed to. Lustgarten believes that the core challenge is that people are unable to comprehend threats that are far on the horizon -- for example, the threat of climate change. “We know on some cerebral level that there’s some real concern there, but it’s very difficult to feel concerned. ...We need some event, something to be angry about, in order to tell a story.” Images of oil on birds do not actually begin to depict the long-term crisis, the deep and difficult story of the oil spill’s environmental impact.

Unfortunately, coverage of the oil spill has tapered off recently -- just as the situation has reached a point where we can determine the real environmental impact. This is deeply troubling. ProPublica has been trying to create a “drumbeat of communication.”  The goal of this approach is to combat the tendency of coverage to end midway through a slow-moving crisis.  ProPublica thus provides an alternative to the common approach of subjecting one climax to six months of reporting, publishing that reported climax in bits, and reiterating the findings in order to get through the clamor. But ProPublica's sort of coverage requires extraordinary depth of commitment and resources, and most news organizations don’t have those resources anymore.

Question: Because stories about natural gas do not have a central narrative like the BP oil spill, how do you report on them?

Lustgarten: The natural gas issue was: can new technology to get natural gas harm drinking water? Though I’m not a scientist, the answer seems to be “yes.”

Gas drilling wasn’t much of an issue until I began covering it, and it is and was very difficult to get people to care about it. My coverage of the natural gas issue is a great example of the type of “drumbeat” I was talking about. It took a long time, and dogged persistence, to reach a critical mass where other people began to cover the issue.

Andrea Pitzer

The final speaker was Andrea Pitzer, who runs the Nieman Storyboard Project at the Nieman Foundation. The elements required for a story, according to Pitzer, are characters, a setting, movement through time, and (eventually) an audience. Studies have shown consistently that stories are how people understand public crises and policy issues; without stories, we deny people the ability to understand current events. So in order to cover slow-moving crises well, we must make sure that we are telling stories, with all the required elements.

New media have made a few changes to the way journalists can tell stories. One concern with narrative is that it’s easiest to tell a story about one person, but often one person can’t be representative of a full issue. New media makes it much easier to tell a story from multiple perspectives. The other issue is that in new media, your story is no longer only your own: individuals can chip in, cross-reporting can add to the picture. This story-telling can become problematic because people can become so interested in a particular narrative. An enhanced narrative may imply things that make quite a splash, which the author may not have intended.

Pitzer showed several projects which use story for reporting in interesting ways. For example, TBD uses Storify, a tool which allows journalists to pull in pieces of social media. Tweets, however, could very clearly show the narrative of how information evolved: at a certain point, people didn’t know what was going on, then a piece of information hit Twitter, and more bits of information added to the initial tweet to fill in the emerging picture. Finally, she pointed out that tools like ManyEyes can help people create data visualizations that add to stories rather than taking away from them. These tools are helpful -- but in the end, the most important thing is to give people a real story to understand and identify with.