Natural Hazards News

Lessons Learned from Kīlauea Eruption’s Media Frenzy

The Kīlauea eruption earlier this year unleashed a media bonanza. Here are nine tips about how to debunk geohazard misinformation in real time from a scientist frequently tapped for expert comments.

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One hundred interviews in 1 month: That’s how many volcanologist Ken Rubin and his colleagues at the University of Hawai‘i gave during the Kīlauea Volcano eruption in May earlier this year.

Rubin was working as a professor in Earth science in Honolulu, Hawaii, when, in April, magma supply increased to the volcano, causing an upper lava lake to overflow. Earthquakes followed, changing the plumbing of the volcano, and the magma drained out of the primary vent. The eruption had begun.

Over the next 4 months, 20 eruptive fissures would open in the area, some of which led to hundreds of homes being destroyed. The event was a focus of national and international news, and as the crisis escalated, misinformation started to fly.

Rubin and his colleagues stepped up to be available for media interviews while geologists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory were busy monitoring the situation. Last week, Rubin gave a presentation at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2018 detailing what he learned from stepping into the media spotlight.

Here are nine takeaways from Rubin’s talk:

  1. People want immediate access to information in the 24-hour news cycle. “The public has an expectation of that right now,” Rubin said. But agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) aren’t always equipped to communication so frequently. “The USGS puts out awesome products,” he said, “but they come out once a day, and that’s just too slow in an event like this.”
  2. Without continuous information coming from official channels, citizens scientists and local news channels fill the void. That’s how people found out about the start of the eruption, said Rubin, from a drone video of a fissure taken from a resident’s backyard and posted to social media. News organizations can pick up these sources and distribute them, for better or for worse.
  3. Unofficial sources can lead to exaggerated or misconceived news. The most doomsday rumor flying around during the Kīlauea eruption, said Rubin, was the idea that half of Kīlauea was going to break off into the ocean and cause a tsunami that would wipe out the west coast of the United States. “There is no evidence in the geological record that this has ever happened,” Rubin noted. Other myths included refrigerator-sized lava bombs and acid pouring into the ocean from the volcano.

What is a researcher to do, knowing the media landscape today? Rubin offered this advice:

  1. Provide historical context. “None of these hazards were new to this event. They’ve happened multiple times over the 35-year history of the eruption.” In the early days of the eruption, he created a map of past lava deposits from 1955 and 1960 in the area to give historical perspective.
  2. When possible, push content as much as possible out on social media. Rubin put the historical map out on his social media, and his posts were often picked up by news organizations, which he could reference during live interviews.
  3. Put parameters around the real danger of the situation. “Despite most of what you heard from the national and international media that the hazards were very widespread, they were extremely local,” explained Rubin. “It really only impacted people in the immediate area.” Harm that did befall people, such as one man whose leg was broken from a lava bomb, happened to those who did not follow evacuation orders.
  4. Understand that debunking misinformation will be a huge part of your job. “A lot of the role of a knowledgeable scientist is to debunk these bizarre theories, while being interviewed live in real time by CNN,” Rubin said. Keep tabs on the present rumors and prepare a response.
  5. Make a script and stick with it. Rubin and his colleagues created daily scripts for speaking with the media.
  6. Have endurance. “It is a pain in the butt,” Rubin said. Journalists will call “at all hours,” he said, and often one interview will bring an onslaught of new calls. Respond quickly to requests but also learn to set boundaries.

Rubin ended his talk with a call to researchers to step up to the plate when events demand their expertise.

“Having knowledgeable scientists involved in the information flow is the only way, in my opinion, to help keep the misinformation to a minimum,” he said.

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jenessaduncombe), News Writing and Production Intern

Citation: Duncombe, J. (2018), Lessons learned from Kīlauea eruption’s media frenzy, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO112331. Published on 18 December 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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