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The Scorekeepers

To the media, Y2K is a piece of meat

By Will Harper

I ADMIT IT: I am Y2KO'd.

I have read all I want to know about Bubba in his bunker with his shotgun and a year's worth of beef jerky. Bring on the apocalypse already.

Y2K is everywhere. Dozens of news organizations maintain Y2K update sites: the Mercury News, USA Today, CNN, CNET, Wired and the venerable New York Times.

On any given day Y2K weblogs link dozens of stories from around the world on the issue. On Nov. 8, Y2Knews.com listed 57 stories to peruse.

ABC is even breaking tradition by limiting Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve to a paltry 30 minutes because it wants to devote around-the-clock coverage to the millennium and Y2K.

Now allow me a brief digression here. I just read a poll that surveyed 1,000 Americans in October and asked, "Which kinds of people are most likely to cheat?" Respondents identified journalists as the third most likely group to cheat, behind only lawyers and politicians.

I mention this because no matter how extensively the media have covered Y2K, there is likely a significant level of distrust of that coverage.

Take Wyoming software geek Mike Adams, the founder of Y2Knewswire, an online subscription magazine highly skeptical of any government or industry claims of Y2K compliance.

"The stories we're seeing now are reassurance stories," Adams observes. "But those stories aren't being researched beyond talking to the author of the press release. ... The media never investigates the [compliance] claims of companies."

For instance, Adams says, when he tried to obtain documentation from the Federal Aviation Administration to back up its claim of 100 percent compliance, he was allegedly told that no news organization had asked for such documentation. The FAA, he says, ultimately refused to show him its data.

AJ Lepley, managing editor of Y2K News magazine (www.y2Knews.com), complains that the media have focused too much on "kook stories," which make it seem like any person making survival preparations for the New Year is a lunatic.

Even in less conspiratorial segments of society, people have been unimpressed with media coverage of Y2K.

"The mainstream media has abrogated its responsibility to inform the public," grouses Stephen O'Leary, an associate professor at Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies in Boston. "It is not covering Y2K in any substantial way."

O'Leary criticizes reporters for using words like "Y2K compliance" and "Y2K ready" without knowing--or at least telling readers and viewers--how these terms are defined.

With companies and government agencies bracing for a wave of litigation after Jan. 1, O'Leary asks, "What significance should we place on the presumably deliberate choice of words such as 'compliant' and 'ready' anyway?"

Despite widespread distrust of the media, public opinion on Y2K has followed the arc of news coverage. A Gallup Poll done in December 1998 showed that 34 percent of those polled believed Y2K would cause "major problems." Not so coincidentally, at the time news stories detailing worst-case scenarios were starting to proliferate.

By the end of August 1999, only 11 percent of those polled believed Y2K would cause major problems. The downshift in public concern over Y2K, O'Leary says, coincides with a change in news coverage. News stories were now parroting the reassurances of utility, government and banking officials that there would be no major problems after Jan. 1. Earlier this month, the media devoted lots of space to President Clinton's "Everything's going to be OK" declaration.

"There's this constant drumbeat of 'Don't worry, be happy.' ... It's not a strange idea that our public officials are lying to us," O'Leary contends. "It's happened within recent memory--like when someone said, 'I did not have sex with that woman.' "

Still, as the Online Journalism Review has pointed out, Y2K "has the potential to be the biggest non-event in the history of mankind." What if nothing happens after Jan. 1? The media, no doubt, will be blamed for sensationalizing Y2K.

For all the crystal-ball prediction of what's going to happen, here's one thing you can count on: Whatever happens, it will all be the media's fault.

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From the November 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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