Last week, I attended a luncheon with Peter Schwartz who is a futurist, a scientist and the head of the Global Business Network. He told a story about a recent report that he wrote, and the coverage of that report, that serves as an excellent metaphor for the way the media covers stories, especially those that relate to the future.
Schwartz and one of his partners were commissioned by the Pentagon to write a report on global climate changes and what impact such changes might have on national security. The report, An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security, painted an ominous picture of what might be – in the worst case scenario – possible in the next few decades.
Shortly after the report was delivered to the Pentagon, The Observer came out with their take on the report:
A secret report, suppressed by US defense chiefs and obtained by The Observer, warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a ‘Siberian’ climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world.
The only problem with their story was that the report had never been suppressed. In fact, Fortune Magazine ran a cover story about the report a few weeks before The Observer came out with their version of things.
And guess what? The story got huge. The false story about a non-existent scandal caused much more of a stir than the original report.
Look. President Bush and Veep Cheney could seriously be the last two guys on the planet who don’t see climate change as an issue worth considering and planning for. But that’s not the point. The point is that we have an almost impossible time maintaining a reasoned (or even unreasoned) public discourse about weighty topics such as the environment, the incredible tax on resources and the atmosphere that will take place once everyone in India and China is driving an SUV, energy alternatives, access to food after a weather shift, etc. But we have no problem getting incredibly excited about the possibility there was a scandal involving the hiding of important information.
The report is small. The non-scandal related to the report is big. Look at it this way. Once we realized that the report had not been suppressed, its contents weren’t nearly as worthy of coverage. That was the big (false story). The Pentagon had supposedly suppressed a story that we wouldn’t have covered had they not suppressed it.
So how does one use the media to break through the noise and get people to think more often and more deeply about some of the big picture issues? Schwartz thinks the most effective way to get a message out these days is to get it into a major Hollywood movie.
If there is some scandal surrounding that movie, all the better.