Communications prof: Look beyond headlines, sound bites for accurate story of nuke plant

By: ISU Communications and Marketing Staff, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff
March 17, 2011

A retired Indiana State University professor says to look beyond sensational news headlines and sound bites and seek out the full story about the situation at Japan's Fukashima Daiishi nuclear plant.

The news media are in business to catch and keep the public's attention in search of circulation and ratings, while political leaders want to be seen as popular so they will be re-elected, said Dan Pyle Millar, professor emeritus of communication.

"The result is a short-circuiting of the story," said Millar, now president of Millar Communications Strategies in Indianapolis. He pointed to the use of the work "apocalypse" by Guenther Oettinger, energy chief of the European Union, and some in the media seizing upon the word.

"Let's separate the media and politics. There are only so many story lines for the media. That they would jump to a more extreme position is not at all surprising. In fact, we really should already understand that," said Millar, who taught at Indiana State from 1982 to 2001 and was chair of the communication department for nine years.

"Politically, it's a different story. Whether an individual's political agenda is pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear, pro-business or anti-business, there is a reason to try to short circuit the rational process. To walk through, for instance, why we cannot have an explosion comparable to a nuclear bomb takes several rational steps and you have to understand all of those steps," he said. "It is much easier to jump to, ‘It's Armageddon,' than it is to walk through what is likely to happen."

It is part of media literacy to teach people the role the media plays in society, how it operates as a business, and to minimize some of the emphasis that may be put on the story and seek other sources of information, Millar said.

"Yes, folks may click off, but there is a societal responsibility for the media, once they've gotten the audience's attention, to tell the story accurately, piece by piece, or at least make it available."

While time and space limitations may prevent newspapers and broadcasters from telling the entire story in print or online, the Internet makes it possible for the media to make the whole story available to their audiences, he said, and that's where readers and viewers can go to find detailed information about complicated stories such as Japan's nuclear crisis.

Millar holds a certification in crisis communication from the Institute for Crisis Management and is co-author of the 2010 book "Crisis Management and Communication: How to Gain and Maintain Control."

Contact: Dan Pyle Millar, professor emeritus, communication, Indiana State University, 317-291-1878 or dpmillar@sbcglobal.net

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3743 or dave.taylor@indstate.edu