After the tsunami, slow news day syndrome

Now the waves have receded, the media are using the Fukushima nuclear plant to ramp up the fear fact

I remember 12 September 2001. I spent the day on a coach heading up to Liverpool for a football match, and all you could hear was the rustling of newspaper pages as people tried to parse the horrors of the terror attacks. For the first time in a while, I bought a newspaper; everybody did. At times like that, we turn to traditional media to help us explain the inexplicable.

We'd all been sitting, open-mouthed and incredulous, in front of the television the night before, attempting to process the images we were seeing. "It looked like something out of a film," came the refrain, time after time. It looked unreal because it was so shocking, but there it was, in front of our eyes. This wasn't entertainment: this was real horror, and it was hard to look away.

We've had a similar response to the awful events in Japan over the past few days. This was a disaster that, unlike previous natural phenomena causing huge losses of life, took place in daylight, in a developed country, with the news cameras rolling to capture everything and amateurs on the ground using high-quality cameraphones to record the unfolding tragedy. Never before has a disaster been caught on such a scale; the astonishing videos and incredible photographs still have the power to shock and dismay.

Even in this age of social media, where we may have encountered the story for the first time away from the mainstream, we have turned to newspapers and broadcasters to explain it all to us. "It looks like something out of a disaster movie," you hear time and again. But we know that it's not CGI; that those specks captured on film desperately running or driving from the tsunami are real people with real lives.

We turn to the media to help us when we find it hard to explain a story like the 11 September 2001 attacks, or the Japanese earthquake: when confronted with the evidence, the footage, the deaths on such a scale, we find it hard to deal with what we are seeing and hearing, and look to the village elders to explain. That's the strength of the old media, which have performed tremendously well in this crisis, but it's a weakness, too.

This excellent blog post at Xark helps explain why. Events like the Japanese tragedies, and other great losses of life, are thankfully rare. Extraordinary events elsewhere, such as the uprisings in the Middle East, are equally uncommon. It's not what the mainstream does during these times of crisis that is the problem – we all end up heading back to the BBC, or our favourite newspaper, to help us process what's going on – but what happens in between those times; what goes on during slow news days.

What it can lead to is a catastrophisation of the mundane in order to approximate a verisimilitude of those times when real disasters strike; to re-create that feeling of helplessness in the news consumer, that need to have things explained in the face of incomputable enormity. That's why you see health scares, cancer scares, weather scares, immigration scares and so on in the tabloids: it's an attempt to paint a picture of impending catastrophe, to tap in to your fear, to make you feel like you need these unfolding disasters explained.

With that in mind, it's worth noting that while broadcasters on the whole have been careful to portray the developing problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant – chilling though they are – in the context of more serious events, the tabloids have been a little bit keener to ramp up the fear factor. Slow news day syndrome is creeping back now that the waves have receded. A new disaster is needed, whether it's really there or not.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear