Thomas Layton / Sunday, April 5, 2020 / Categories: Modern Problems Posting Fire in a Crowded Forum A Modern Writer's Ethical Concerns How can we ethically wrap our heads around the enormous magnifying power given the written word by cyberspace? Remember that this includes everyone from the pundits on TV to the staffers who writer their scripts. The ‘fire in a crowded theatre’ adage leaps immediately to mind but the simple act of referencing it in the title means I need to make a disclaimer. This is not an article about free speech. The internet is full of political forums and this is Just Ethics. Google the phrase ‘fire in a crowded theatre’ and you will find it referenced in over 200 court documents and countless journal articles. The urge against alarmism weighs equally on public statements against conscription (the context in which it originated) as to a journalist reporting on the spread of a new strain of flu. This article started life as a simple exercise on the ethical concerns of a writer. That was until the news cycle provided a real life demonstration. Since reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak began in January we have seen progressively greater levels of fear injected into media that is consumed by millions. A recent article in the conversation explained the dynamic thus; While the news doesn't necessarily tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about. In doing so, the news signals what issues merit our attention. It is for this simple reason that writers on any public forum have an ethical responsibility to their readers. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, who authored the above article, analysed reporting on the current health scare to show how it consistently emphasised phrases such as ‘deadly disease’, ‘pandemic’, ‘epidemic’, ‘killer virus’ and ‘state of emergency’. All these phrases trigger a fearful response. Jorgensen concluded that the media has reached a state where ‘the news’ has become a self sustaining hysteria. Where the media reports on the public anxiety generated by the news, thus amplifying the anxiety. Something else that her article demonstrates; in addition to telling us what to think about, the news also frames how we should consider it. In my home town of Sydney we all had a good laugh at the expense of hoarders when toilet paper started disappearing. Soon enough the hoarding and the responses to it became regular bulletins on our screens. The Prime Minister even made an impassioned plea against the practice. But the supermarket shelves have been stripped bearer and bearer each time I have gone there since. The hoarders start to seem justified in their behaviour when we are constantly being told that there is something to panic about. Humans overcome crises by working as a team. Teamwork requires clear thinking and preferably some kind of plan. This alone should be reason enough not to let fear inform our writing in times of crisis. In particular for members of a mass media whose role in stoking hysteria has been well documented across the last century. Encouraging fear encourages irrational behaviour and is therefore always ethically irresponsible. Right? But What If The Theatre Is Actually On Fire? There is smoke pouring out from backstage and the actors are starting to look very nervous, but the show continues until the roof collapses because nobody wants to be the one shouting fire in a crowded theatre. It sounds like a black comedy but this was the scenario just a few months ago in regards to COVID-19. The first suspected case was reported in December, but the problem did not receive wide attention until January. At that point the World Health Organisation began daily press releases on the matter. As many look to the WHO its message has been to remain calm and follow doctor’s instructions. This has come even to the point of appearing to downplay the threat. On February 25 they reported the epidemic had peaked and would soon pass. Two days later the press releases were encouraging governments to prepare for a world epidemic. After that borders started closing and cities were locked down. It is unlikely that some new discovery was made in those two days that drastically altered the message. Rather the WHO likely decided it was time to point out the large smoke cloud hanging over the audience. Who is being more ethically responsible with their words, the one who sees the fire but says nothing to avoid starting a panic or the one who leaps to their feet with a shrill cry of ‘FIRE’, triggering a stampede for the door? The one who stays silent is at least acknowledging that their words will have ramifications. But silence will have consequences too and potentially ones far worse than those of a stampede. And real life rarely divides neatly into ethical dichotomies. Are some shortages at the store perhaps a necessary evil to make us all aware of the problem? Might a little panic be just what we need to take the problem seriously? How about a middle ground? Nobody shouts fire. But having been alerted to the problem by an eagle eyed stage hand, the venue manager calmly walks onto the stage and begins directing people to line up at the exits. He assures them that there is no cause for alarm and that their tickets will be fully refunded. Some people will still probably panic but not enough to cause a stampede. Because whether or not the theatre is on fire, humans still respond most effectively with teamwork. And everything we read or hear affects the terms in which we quantify a problem. Women and Children First Let’s move our analogy away from a burning theatre to stricken ship on the high seas. Specifically the HMS Birkenhead as it sinks off the coast of Cape Town. The captain realises with horror that there are five hundred soldiers on board and nearly 200 civilians, with lifeboat capacity for 193. Does he, unwilling to start a panic, continue as normal until the water laps at his ankles? Does he bellow abandon ship at the top of his lungs? First come first served at the lifeboats. He does neither. Instead he directs the soldiers to stand at attention and orders ‘women and children first’. Giving rise to an international protocol still practiced to this day. By all logic the crew should respond to this situation with fear but the fact that there is a plan keeps them together. They remain a team and work to respond to the crisis in the most effective manner possible. Four hundred people will die but the lifeboats depart in good order. The greatest possible number are saved from the wreck because the captain’s words prevented panic. Modern society has no ‘captain’ as such, and very few of us have the hard discipline of a naval crew. But words still have as much power to change perceptions of a situation. In the space of one sentence the captain of the Birkenhead changed the situation for his crew. They no longer framed the crisis in terms of ‘I am going to die’ but rather ‘we are going to ensure that as few people die as possible.’ Hundreds more articles are being written every day about COVID-19. A great deal of which take their cues from the WHO press releases. In terms of controlling public hysteria these have been perhaps the most ethically responsible. Treating the outbreak as a problem that people have the power to solve and making the first steps available. Much of it is basic health advice but in those hand washing and social distancing guides is the same guiding principle of the Birkenhead Drill. They are telling people that there is a plan, they are encouraging methodical action and working together. Reading their day by day updates on the situation for this article was a greatly reassuring experience. But sensationalism sells, and for every article encouraging reasoned responses to the current health scare there is one that only serves to point out the crisis and encourage people to fear it. The global response to COVID-19 is not just being made by governments and organisations. Every word that is spoken or written about the issue is part of the response because those words will set the terms by which people consider the crisis. Framing it in terms of fear and imminent disaster would hinder any organised response. But observation of an imminent disaster can still be framed in terms of a problem with a solution. This does not mean we should suck all emotion from our writing. It means that a chief ethical concern for any writer is how the emotions at play in their words will be interpreted. How will they be magnified across the vast digital audience. Would they, were they spoken on the Birkenhead, help or hinder the plan to save as many as possible? How Do We Measure Well-Being? 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