By Kevin Sorbello, Chief Engineer
Hollywood and the media rely on sensationalism in a very competitive and time sensitive market. Pictures and video try to capture images and sound bites, usually taken out of context and lacking the benefit of the background information necessary to explain often complex situations. Images of burning ships, birds covered in oil, body bags, and crying survivors of shipwrecks attract audiences and sponsors. If someone says something provocative or accusatory, it makes front-page news, regardless of whether or not it is based on fact; if it is later proved wrong, the retraction will be on page 20.
These information outlets have a limited amount of time to capture their audience’s attention and deliver news or propaganda in a way that captivates their viewer’s imagination. A Hollywood movie shows people wandering through a powerless ship at night with faint blue light mysteriously illuminating their way. People walk through burning buildings without harm, or jump off buildings only to walk away uninjured. Police officers routinely draw their weapons and their labs use equipment that provides instant information. They move the story along and provide enough information to suspend disbelief. In short, they entertain in a misinformative way. The problem is that they are so good at what they do we often adopt the images and sound-bites they present in passing as “the way things are”; Even when we know what we see is not real or might be inaccurate, the impressions have a lasting effect and form a reference point for how we make sense of things we do not fully understand.
The more arcane a subject, the less likely it will be reported or treated with accuracy. Maritime operations are probably one of the most misunderstood victims of misinformation, primarily because boating, shipping, and sailing seem simple enough for people to grasp. However, most people have never been on a ship and often expect engine rooms to be dark, quiet places with steam suddenly blowing out of pipes. “Reality TV” covers maritime operations with shows like Deadliest Catch or Whale Wars where apparently unsafe mariners risk their lives in dangerous seas. The mariners and methods represented in these shows are then etched into the minds of viewers with no other frame of reference.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill was a world news event. The details behind the accident were slow to emerge, but the accusation that the accident was the result of a captain who was intoxicated at the time was presented, and accepted, as the cause the same day. The fact that the captain was later acquitted of being intoxicated never reached the public because it happened long after the public lost interest in the case, and was reported far from the front page. The public perception is that a captain is always on the bridge and in command. When asked whether it seems reasonable that someone would be on the bridge for weeks at a time, the response is that they don’t really know how it works, but they know the captain is in charge and should therefore always be there.
To expect the general public to know how bridge watches are stood is asking too much. However, when there is a maritime accident, one would hope that sufficient maritime expertise would be available to provide contextual details. This, however, usually does not happen. The report goes out with what limited information is available, and the public consumes every word as fact.
Why does it matter whether or not the public knows the facts when they have nothing to do with how the situations are eventually resolved? Because policy decisions and laws are made by misinformed politicians who respond to misinformed constituencies. An example of this is a college text book on decision-making that uses the Exxon Valdez as an example of poor decision making by an intoxicated captain using an unlicensed third mate as the deck watch officer. Factually incorrect, these scholarly authors provide an analysis that is being read by hundreds, if not thousands, of college students who will pass on this misinformation to other educated members of our society. The authors had access to accurate information, and as scholars holding PhDs well understood the need for accuracy. However, they used information out of context, failed to understand how the parts fit together, and failed to question information deemed public knowledge. Hollywood helped reinforce Hazelwood’s perceived guilt in the movie “Waterworld”, where Dennis Hopper piloted the Exxon Valdez (which had already been renamed) with a toast to “Saint Joe”.
There is, however, a ray of hope. The recent grounding of the Costa Concordia, originally reported with typical media sensationalism, later received a more accurate and detailed report. A special television presentation of the disaster included input and perspective from licensed officer/instructors teaching at a few US maritime academies and other industry professionals. They showed the ship’s AIS track with a commentary that provided contextual detail on how the accident occurred, while presenting a fairly realistic assessment for what it was like to be onboard at the time. All mariners may not agree with some of the assessments made by these licensed instructors, but their perspective was educated and professional; a stark contrast from the mariners usually presented by the media. While still prone to a degree of sensationalism, the report gave a far more educated and balanced assessment of one of the most significant accidents in recent maritime history.
This report was a good start, but as an industry we need to be more proactive and seek out those who report the news and create Hollywood films to let them know we are available, communicating the strategic need for accuracy. People believe what they read and see, and if we want to be seen as more than petty pirates and maladroit mariners, we need to get out there and become a more relevant part of the public consciousness, making sure the media and Hollywood get it right.