Success stories reported as failure

Something I often see happening in the media is the reporting of success stories as failures.

The scenario is this:

  1. Something unfortunate and unpredictable happens.
  2. The authorities / people responsible clean up the mess and few-to-no parties are harmed, physically or financially.
  3. This major success is reported by the news as a failure.

Today’s story about the keys at Wembley going missing was a great example of this phenomenon. Something very unfortunate happened – a set of keys went missing at a major Olympic venue. But here’s the thing: this fact was discovered instantly, and security protocol was initiated which resulted in all the locks being changed before there was any chance of security being compromised. This proves the security systems are working! A failure would be that the loss wasn’t noticed until it was way too late to know if anyone had got in. And yet the media reports this with headlines like “Wembley keys loss embarrasses police”. Why not “Wembley keys loss demonstrates police efficiency”?

It happened last year with the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Safety systems at a nuclear power plant failed, and a number of meltdowns occurred. But due to the huge number of safety measures, no one died and only 2 people suffered radiation-related injuries. This was a huge success story – something went massively wrong with an incredibly dangerous piece of equipment and no one died.

I think it’s the public’s ability to remember and latch onto the bad things and not to celebrate the good ones, and the media doesn’t help with this.

Think of the Manchester bomb in 1996. People remember there was a terrorist attack that wiped out a large part of the city centre. What they don’t remember is the amazing effort by the emergency services that resulted in not a single life claimed.

And how about the Y2K bug? The number of times I hear people say “well that was a big fuss over nothing, wasn’t it?” No! It was a potential major international disaster that was completely averted by thousands of engineers tirelessly working to fix all the broken code before it became an issue. But of course “Y2K bug fixed; no one hurt” is not a great front page headline.


  1. Emily
    Jul 30, 2012

    these are all really good examples of the sad truth that you point out. bad news is what sells media, and that’s something we’re all responsible for. a lot of us would much rather watch a train wreck than people arriving safely at their destination. if nothing went wrong, then there’s no one to blame! and how would we play the blame game if there were nothing to blame anyone for?

  2. Ivor Tymchak
    Aug 6, 2012

    The Mainstream Media don’t allow the facts to get in the way of a good story.

    Fukushima though is an interesting example of how many different angles you can adopt depending on which axe you have to grind. It could be argued that they screwed up in the first instance in building the plant on the coast in an area that is prone to earthquakes and not anticipating a black swan event.

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