By Peter Griffin 08/12/2017

I was at the science communicator’s conference in Auckland on the afternoon of 22 February, 2011, when the massive earthquake struck Christchurch.

The theme of the conference was “Listening to the other side” and we’d enjoyed several stimulating discussions during the day as non-scientists gave their views on ways to effectively communicate the science of complex issues.

That abstract discussion turned brutally real over lunch as our colleagues in the room began to receive messages from their loved ones and we all got a sense of the magnitude of the disaster. Some people headed directly for the airport while others hit the phones as they assumed their roles as crisis communicators.

On the ground in Christchurch, journalists at the The Press newspaper stumbled out of their shattered newsroom. Within minutes, many of them had taken up cameras and note pads and were venturing out into their broken city to document the aftermath.

On assignment on the other side of the world, veteran The Press science reporter Paul Gorman had no idea of the carnage playing out in his home town.

“Fast asleep in London, I was blissfully unaware of this horrendous quake for about four hours. I half woke about 4 a.m. and dozily checked my silenced cellphone for the time. It said I had 52 new messages.”

Portacom City: Reporting on the Christchurch and Kaikoura Earthquakes tells Gorman’s story of covering earthquakes before and after the epic February 22 quake.

Other books have featured moving accounts from those who were in Christchurch that day, including Earthquake, which was written by The Press reporters, and Trapped, the story of numerous quake survivors written by The Press journalist Martin Van Beynen.

Portacom City is a different proposition, following Gorman’s own emotional journey through the crisis, but giving us an insight into how the science of the quakes was disseminated to bewildered Cantabrians.

Fractured relationships

Despite the best intentions of all concerned, it was an imperfect process, characterised by disagreements over what the public should be told and by whom, and a deteriorating relationship between the country’s top earthquake scientists and Gorman, who was tasked with putting the risk of future quakes in context for The Press readers who were already dealing with the loss of 185 people in the last one.

Throw in the blunt communication style of Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlie, the pseudoscientific predictions of ‘Moon Man’ Ken Ring and a significant science communication challenge was exacerbated even further.

The cracks in media-scientist relations showed relatively quickly.

Academics, such as the University of Canterbury’s Dr Mark Quigley and visiting US scientist Professor Kevin Furlong, were eager to assist the media make sense of the quakes and having lived through the quakes themselves, were better able to relate to what the people of Christchurch had been through.

But they found themselves off side with senior GNS Science experts like Dr Kelvin Berryman, who were tasked with providing official advice to the Government and feared mixed messages were going out to the public.

As Gorman writes:

“Furlong’s theories about the quakes and my willingness to use him as a commentator became a major bone of contention between The Press and some at GNS Science. And the less they engaged with me, the more I had to turn to experts like Furlong and Quigley, who upped the ante even more.”

The science-media relationship took several more turns for the worse as a cautious communications strategy on the part of the Government and its scientists collided with a thirst for information from Gorman and his colleagues, who were seeking to give the public a fuller picture of the ongoing risk of further large quakes.

The public interest

Off-the-record discussions were disputed, Official Information Act requests filed in frustration and a tense meeting with Gorman, Berryman and then The Press editor Andrew Holden at the paper’s dreary Portacom office near the airport was a low point.

All of this could be considered the usual jostle for control of a story that goes hand in hand with public interest journalism. But this wasn’t your typical public interest story. It was particularly complex and sensitive and scientists and journalists alike were exhausted and under pressure.

Eventually, after more contentious stories featured in The Press, GNS Science started running regular briefings for journalists to better address the demand for information and a more constructive relationship emerged.

I know many of the key players in this story and it is clear it was a bad experience for both sides. But I do believe that communication of earthquake risk both by scientists and journalists is better as a result of the lessons learned over Christchurch.

Gorman isn’t as convinced. Seven years on, he questions whether the public will be better served in another big quake, despite the much improved scientific response to the Kaikōura quake.

He concludes:

“Perhaps my pessimism that there will still be government attempts to control the flow of information to the public after another deadly earthquake shows that I am still bruised from my reporting experiences during the 2010-11 quakes.”

“We had the right to ask what we wanted and to know everything that was known about [the earthquakes], or to be told honestly that something was not known – and not be fobbed off or excluded, or patronised by those who thought they knew best.”

In the end, Portacom City is a case study of the need for building trusting relationships between scientists and the media, so that those relationships survive crisis. It also highlights the need for openness and transparency and above all, the need for empathy for those who are living with the crisis.

We can’t prevent future quakes from rattling or towns and cities, but we can learn from the biggest disaster in our history to make sure that next time, we do better by the public in the way we all play a role in explaining the science.

Portacom City: Reporting on the Christchurch and Kaikoura Earthquakes Paul Gorman
BWB Texts, November 2017, RRP $14.99.