BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lately, our apocalyptic feelings have sprung from itchy Twitter fingers and rhetoric of high-on fury but it was not so long ago, seven years, in fact, that a group of journalists got together to consider the end of the world, and the nuclear option was not the calamity of choice. It didn't even come in second place.
A journalism powwow held in 2011, attended by heavy hitters, like Google, the New York Times and the Knight Foundation, featured freewheeling discussions of topics like, you know, present and future business models to monetize the news industry but the loosely scheduled, so-called “un-conference” also featured a whiteboard where anyone could pose a topic. At the time, Andrew Fitzgerald was at Twitter -- he’s now at Hearst -- and he suggested a session on reporting the apocalypse. He told us back then that the group settled on two scenarios, global pandemic and alien invasion. Fitzgerald said the idea came to him after all that talk about the future of news.
ANDREW FITZGERALD: I was standing there looking at the white board myself and I thought, but what about the real future -- [BROOKE LAUGHS]
-- what about the end of time, and so, just walked up to the whiteboard myself and put down “reporting the end of the world.”
And we sat there and discussed best practices and tips and tricks --
-- for reporting during the apocalypse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote in your blog post you wake up on a Tuesday, make yourself some coffee, open your laptop, check Twitter to find spaceships are suspended over our planet's major cities preparing to attack. So how did you think things would play out from there?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: Well, we borrowed the scenario, admittedly, from Independence Day which I am a secret fan of.
BILL PULLMAN as PRESIDENT THOMAS J. WHITMORE: And you will, once again, be fighting for our freedom, not from tyranny, oppression or persecution but from annihilation. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday but as the day when the world declared in one voice, We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight!
ANDREW FITZGERALD: That model of the aliens appear, there is a short period of time before they begin any sort of action, and so, you have a period of time of spreading information in which our communications infrastructures are still working.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of the technology is going to be the first thing to go, no internet, maybe no phone communications or at least cell phones, so how do you even begin as a journalist to get the information out?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: Right. The first things Zlord the alien lord wants to do is eliminate human ability to communicate. We are incredibly reliant on the technologies that we use on a daily basis. We are not very prepared for those technologies to not be there. Human communication has this rich history of different formats, everything from carrier pigeons to smoke signals to ham radio but we don't have a lot of experience in, say, ham radios, which is the format we decided would be probably the best one to use. You can -- you could probably fit a tweet around a pigeon’s leg.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So [LAUGHING] but seriously, how would journalists in the classic sense during an alien invasion, what would you cover?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: When the aliens invade, the first thing that you need to do is do some service journalism. Report where they're moving, what they're up to. You need to explain alien anatomies, such that people know that what looks like an alien's hand is actually its mouth and so you don't want to move your delicious human guts anywhere near that appendage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what was the reaction among your journalism cohort when someone raised the idea that perhaps journalists ought to engage in getting the aliens’ side of things?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: There’s a fair amount of shouting down.
First we talked about which celebrity journalist would be first to interview Zlord the alien lord Lord Zlord, full well knowing that there was a high percentage chance of them not surviving the interview.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Geraldo Rivera. [LAUGHS]
ANDREW FITZGERALD: No names, no names.
ANDREW FITZGERALD: Very quickly we started talking about the political reporting on people who thought we should listen to aliens versus people who didn't think we should start listening to the aliens.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did it break down along party lines?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: I believe the phrase was “alien-hugging Democrats versus alien-killing Republicans.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Now, you note that David Carr, the media columnist for the New York Times, observed at the “unconference” that in conflict journalism it's the symmetries of war that keep journalists safe and that there's no symmetry in our war with our would-be destroyers. What does that mean?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: The fact that these two sides are warriors battling with one another, as a journalist, you are in a separate role that is not a part of that symmetrical relationship. And so, it is the battle between these two sides that protects you. Unfortunately, in alien conflict, it is the ultimate asymmetry in warfare, the ultimate other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, every single war ever fought has involved the home team and the Other, with a capital “O.” That's why war after war you always hear about the Other killing babies. Most of these stories are made up but they keep reappearing so that they seem less than human; they don't value life the way that we do.
ANDREW FITZGERALD: And maybe we would learn this in the sit-down one-on-one with Zlorg, in which we talk about, you know, his upbringing. Maybe they value life more. Maybe they have a, a reason why humanity must be eradicated that we should listen to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s go to the global pandemic scenario. You wrote, the aliens left us miraculously alone, disappeared into the far reaches of space and everyone won Pulitzers for their coverage of Invasion Watch 2012. But then you wake up on a Tuesday -- Tuesday seems to be a bad day in your scenario -- make yourself some coffee, open your laptop and check Twitter to see reports of a fast-moving fatal illness sweeping the planet. And the big discussion around the possible pandemic was whether it'd be okay to suspend the facts. What did you mean by that?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: I wanted to raise the question of whether or not one should not wait for verification and put information out there and give it a rating, say, we don't really believe this is true, we give it a 3 on our pandemic watch truth scale. The journalists in the room roundly disagreed with this idea. Everyone raised the point that, actually, in these disaster scenarios facts are even more important. The example that really resonated with a lot of people in the room was Katrina. The rumors that propagated during those first couple of days, many of which turned out to be absolutely untrue, were widely reported in, in mass media. We decided that for journalists, in a time of apocalypse, the facts are actually even more important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you considered the world ending in alien invasion and the world ending in a pandemic. I'm surprised you didn't consider a scenario which many futurists believe in, that the robots will eventually take over.
ANDREW FITZGERALD: [LAUGHS] It was our planned third apocalypse to go through.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So let's say it really happened, which would you prefer, to be devoured by aliens or killed in a global pandemic?
ANDREW FITZGERALD: You know, I think I would probably choose alien invasion if, for no other reason, than at the very end to know that we weren't alone in the universe.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Good answer. Thank you, Andrew.
ANDREW FITZGERALD: Thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andrew Fitzgerald was at Twitter when we spoke to him back in 2011. He’s now at Hearst.
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder and Jon Hanrahan. We had more help from Asthaa Chaturvedi and our show was edited -- by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Sam Bair.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.