Thursday, 29 March 2012

I hate to say I told you so...

It looks like the self-fulfilling prophesy of fuel shortages is continuing, and headlines from the BBC such as 'Panic buying' fuel queues increase' ( can only encourage this process. I remember a few years back, I was at a seminar on how the media operate in emergencies, and our advice was that the media should avoid reporting such incidents as 'panic-buying' to avoid these situations escalating. One brave local BBC journalist there did declare that she would no longer use the term in her coverage, but it looks like this didn't develop into a broader policy! 

I'm not saying that the media shouldn't report such events (which is their job after all), but they should really think about the language they use to cover such events. Rather than using the term 'panic-buying', why not circulate the more responsible (and indeed accurate) message that fuel stocks are sufficient if people don't all rush out at the same time & fill up their tanks? The ill-advised comments by Francis Maude that people should fill up Jerry cans with petrol could be seen as the trigger for people starting to fill up their tanks, but the media could have thought a bit harder about how they presented the story and events afterwards.

A Press Release put out by my University is cut and pasted below, and a link to an interview I did on the Julia Hartley-Brewer lunchtime radio show for LBC is available via;

Media to blame for panic buying
Media reporting of panic buying may fuel the sudden queues at petrol stations more than any industrial action, according to an expert in crowd behaviour.
Christopher Cocking, a Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at University of Brighton who specialises in the psychology of crowd behaviour, says the media have a responsibility to be more considered in how they report the threat of industrial action by fuel tanker drivers over pay and conditions.
Talk of panic buying hit the headlines yesterday after Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude reportedly said that people should fill up Jerry cans of petrol to avoid running out.
The media have drawn parallels with the fuel crisis of 2000 when oil refineries were blockaded. Cocking says, however, that it was not industrial action that caused the crisis, but fears of fuel shortages which caused people to fill up their tanks en masse and petrol stations to run out of supplies.  Ironically, he says, there is now talk of a similar fuel crisis before any strike action has even begun. He emphasises the importance of providing accurate information in emergency situations.
In a blog on the subject, he says: “What may seem to an outsider as irrational 'panic-buying', may seem like a very sensible thing to do to each individual, as they may fear that if they don't stock up, they risk going without. This is a very good example of a social dilemma, in that what is in an individual's own interest may not be good for the collective interest. This is an area where more responsible reporting by the media could play a part, because reporting that 'panic-buying' is occurring can encourage people to act in their own short-term interest rather than the greater good. Therefore, perhaps instead of reporting outbreaks of 'panic-buying' the media should instead report that stocks  will remain sufficient just so long as people don't try to hoard as much as they can in the misplaced fear that there will be shortages”. 
Cocking researches how people behave in emergencies and issues such as panic buying. He has previously commented, for instance, on the evacuation of the Costa Concordia and last year's riots.
He says “myths” about panic-stricken behaviour among crowds often seem more based fictional stereotypes than the facts. For instance, he says there was no evidence that passengers on the Costa Concordia panicked, despite reports. He adds that similarly there is no data to support assertions that protesters can be incited to violence by others in the absence of other contextual factors.

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