Y2K Media Watch

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Y2K News Obscured by Fireworks posted at Y2K Media Watch

Officials Prepare to Declare Victory over Y2K Bug; Web Hums with Reports and Speculation

Stephen D. O'Leary

As I write this, the television set in the next room is aglow with fireworks. Great Britain is celebrating the year 2000 rollover in its costly "Millennium Dome," as we in the United States await for midnight to complete its sweep around the globe. In a few hours the ball will drop in Times Square, and the fireworks will sweep westward toward California. Here in Los Angeles a cold rainy day, the first rain in months, may dampen the pyrotechnics but won't squelch the celebrations. The news coverage has focused on festivities, with only brief glances at reports of Y2K computer problems. The tone of the coverage is consistently upbeat; if computer problems are mentioned at all, it is usually to report that anticipated Y2K glitches have not occurred. Unless there are any major breakdowns, we can expect an orgy of self-congratulation from government and corporate officials over the next few days. We can also expect that the "doomsday" angle on Y2K will produce many stories that scornfully dismiss the efforts of many Y2K activists as false prophets and Chicken Littles. But don't be fooled: in fact, if we get through the next few weeks and months with no major problems, it will be largely due to the efforts of those who warned the public and pressured government and corporate officials into remediation.

In spite of the feel-good news we are getting from official sources, troubling questions remain. A few hours ago, MSNBC's "World Dispatches" reported Y2K-related equipment failures at the Shika nuclear power plant, 170 miles northwest of Tokyo. The computer problems pose no threat to public safety, according to the reports, but it will be some time before we know the full extent of what happened. And many Y2K failures may only be manifested in the weeks to come, as business and government agencies around the world resume normal business and attempt routine operations, such as payroll, that could potentially be affected by date-related computer problems.

Minor glitches, such as occurred in Japan, may never escalate into anything more serious. But declarations of victory are premature. The complexity of the problem, and the vast scale of remediation efforts, will ensure that news about Y2K will be especially important to watch in the coming weeks. And there's no indication that we can count on mainstream media sources, who have for the most part failed to cover the Y2K story in any depth, to give us accurate information about breaking news. One of the most striking aspects of the diffusion of Y2K news has been the increasing gap between the major media corporations and the information and opinion that Y2K aficionados trade on the Internet. With few exceptions, those who seek in-depth coverage of Year 2000 computer problems have had no alternative but the Web. Yet the spread of information on the Internet is problematic: the lack of filtering and the ease of distribution can rapidly magnify rumor into putative fact. When certain individuals and groups read and post their news from a distinctly paranoid perspective, we have reason to worry about the way distrust and cynicism can affect responses to a crisis--even when the crisis appears to be a non-event.

A number of Web sites have stepped up their efforts to inform the public about Y2K problems. In the remainder of this column, I'll list some of most useful information sources that bear watching as Y2K problems manifest in different sectors of society and around the globe. I make no promises regarding the reliability of information on these sites; I think that even if the information found on some of them is false or incorrect, it will be important to see how such coverage affects public perceptions of the Y2K problem. The Web site for the Information Coordination Center (ICC) of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion will be a first stop for many reporters (and unfortunately for all of us, the last stop as well). The ICC "will receive sector Y2K status information from State and local governments, industry, and organizations across the nation. During [the rollover period], the Council will provide regularly updated information to the public covering vital sectors of the economy including Building Operations, Education, Energy, Federal Government Operations, Financial Services/Economic, Food Supply, Health Care, International, State, Local and Tribal Government Operations, Telecommunications, Transportation, and Water."

Many Y2K activists are skeptical of the President's Council because they consider it a public relations effort to calm people down rather than spread useful information. Rejecting a "top-down" model of information diffusion, one group, Coalition 2000, has begun an alternative site: the Grassroots Information Coordination Center. As the GICC press release explains, they aim to provide "a unique Y2K information resource as a trustworthy adjunct and grassroots alternative to government and industry information sharing efforts...[and] a forum where volunteers will 'follow the sun' on New Year9s Eve and long afterwards to provide late-breaking news of Y2K-related events." Visitors to this forum will find threads devoted to Y2K impacts as reported from numerous local communities; the forum is moderated to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the reports.

A number of news media outlets feature updated briefings and collections of Y2K news. A useful daily summary of breaking Y2K news that digests material from many sources and checks for accuracy can be found at the Arlington Institute's "Y2K in the News" Web site. The excellent and level-headed Sanger's Review of Y2K News performs a similar service and is well worth bookmarking.

For me, the most interesting phenomena to watch are the ongoing conversations taking place on the Web and on Usenet about the Y2K problem. When the history of the millennium bug is finally written, in years to come, the impact of these interactive conversations as a source of both news and rumor will surely feature prominently. I'll be monitoring the discussions below carefully in the coming weeks, perhaps not as information sources but certainly as examples of the sociology of disaster prediction in the aftermath phase.

The Time Bomb 2000 forum has been a place for serious concerned citizens and those with technical knowledge to hold forth alongside some representatives of the lunatic fringe. In a similar vein, the Y2K General Discussion forum, sponsored by Y2KChaos, is a spinoff from Gary North's web pages. In spite of this origin, however, most of this list's posts seem to be rather sober. A moderated forum "by Christians and for Christians" which welcomes posts from those of other faiths and viewpoints, this is a useful place to look for how Y2K is being dealt with by those who anticipated major catastrophe.

Other discussions to watch are the ZDNet Y2K Discussion Group and the Disaster Center's Year 2000 Message Board. Usenet forums of particular interest include , one of the longest-running discussions of the Y2K problem, with regular postings and news updates on both technical and social aspects of Y2K; , a general forum for Y2K news and discussion; and those interested in the way breaking news is being received by religious enthusiasts and doomsday aficionados can try .

As of New Year's Eve, all of these groups are quite active with many current posts that both share news and speculate on its significance. One can learn a lot from comparing some of these sites with the news from official sources. It remains to be seen whether the gap between the mainstream media and the frequently over-enthusiastic activists will widen or shrink in the months to come. Prediction is always a risky business, but I wouldn't take any bets on who will be able to admit error more easily, from John Koskinen to the doomsday prophets. When the fireworks die down, check back with Y2K Media Watch to see how the news, or lack of news, is being received on all sides of the Y2K issue.

-- Steve Davis (Columbia, MD) (Steve@davislogic.com), January 01, 2000


Saskatoon, SK, Canada

The local and National media in Canada have been reporting NO Y2K related incidents anywhere in the world.

They have the resources to gain access to the same information we have been following this day. I consider it irresonsible of the media to ignore the problems that did occur. The public demands the right to know the information. I suspect the respective Governments attempted to gag the media into showing the "feel good" part of the millenium and, in order not to create mass hysteria, deliberately left out the reporting of the "bug" reports.

I would imagine that we shall see and hear over the next few days the full extent of the problems. The public will naturally ask why this information was not provided in a more timely fashion.

Michael Dudar

-- Michael Dudar (mdudar@netcom.ca), January 01, 2000.

My concern is that if news reports of problems beglin to surface, it wont be long until any breakdown or failure will be blamed on the bug. So, would there be an effect like-"it must have been the bug"- and thereby making the situation seem very much worse and out of control? Could this have a drastic effect on markets, and individuals paranoia and free flosting anxieties?

-- Thepoke Smotdude :) (thinkasur@aol.com), January 01, 2000.

Steven, thank you for a comprehensive and responsible news report. I'd like to see your article on the front pages of every paper in the country, and beyond.

-- Jan Nickerson (JaNickrson@aol.com), January 01, 2000.

Professor O'Leary's article (complete with hyperlinks) is at


on the Y2K Media Watch website (co-sponsored by the Online Journalism Review at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and The Center for Millennial Studies, Boston University):


Navigator takes eons to load their content (best to use Explorer), but it's worth it.

-- David Hughes (davehuge@idt.net), January 01, 2000.

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