Monday’s tidal event was an excellent example of the shortcomings of the mainstream media and how it can irresponsibly spread misinformation. Most east coast media outlets picked up on the “king tide” story and, without any scientific verification, attributed the high water to a crazy array of unrelated misfortune.

King tides happen every year. They are nothing new. They are not brought on by climate change and nor are they tsunami. King tides are, like all tides, caused by a confluence of the sun and the moon’s gravity pulling on the ocean surface. Admittedly, Monday’s was a particularly large tide (for some areas), yet it was simply one phase of the ocean’s tide. Nothing more.

In fact, the National Tidal Centre, a department of the Bureau of Meteorology, predicted that the high tide for Sunday 19 December 2008 would be exactly the same height as Monday’s king tide. The predicted water levels were identical, but the media hype levels couldn’t have been more different.

Further, Monday’s tide came in below the predicted height and has been exceeded many times over the past year. It will also be exceeeded in the coming year, so it will be interesting to see the media response then. I predict we’ll hear nothing.

Perhaps it was because the Department of Environment and Climate Change used Monday’s high tide as a model for a possible climate change scenario that got everyone in a tizz? News reporters caught wind of the “climate change” story and sent cameramen and journos down to the seashore to document the event.

What did they get? A few waves lapping at the shore a wee bit above the normal tide line. Hardly good television. Never mind, the “king tides” were then attributed to a swathe of other accidents that happened on Monday:

  • The Herald Sun reported a fellow who was riding his motorbike at high speed along a beach in northern NSW as “swept out to sea by a king tide”.
  • Sky News reported that the king tide caused a dinghy to overturn and throw three men into the sea at Merimbula southern NSW.
  • The Tweed Daily News said the “king tides at Snapper Rocks were not the best for surfing” and, in an enormous leap of scientific knowledge, “the extremely high tides also brought extreme lows to the coast.”
  • But The Courier Mail in Brisbane took the fearmongering to radical new heights when it warned holidaymakers of the king tides and ran a shot of Cow Bombie in Western Australia breaking at 25 feet

And to top off this 24 hours of media lunacy, a colleague of mine was even asked by someone — from a scientific department, no less — if the current spate of shark attacks were due to the king tide!

Perhaps it’s the over-arching fear of climate change that drove this bandwagon. If so, then it may be a bit easier to understand. Because if the climate change scenarios do occur, then the outcome for humans is pretty damn bleak. But misinformation and blatant fearmongering do nothing to help the cause.

I would’ve thought that anyone with even a cursory understanding of ocean dynamics would know that the events attributed to the king tides were bollocks. And I would’ve expected someone in the respective media outlets might either know that, or at least seek verification from someone who did.

I guess it shows how little the mainstream world understands these issues, but how well they understand the value of a dramatic story. And that bodes very badly for news we receive on climate change.

Taking mainstream news with a grain of salt may sound like common sense, but common sense seems to be something that’s in short supply when talk of climate change rolls around. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a climate sceptic — just the opposite in fact. But what I can’t stand is issues being pushed because they fit pre-determined infotainment agendas.

The mainstream media has just shown us how much mileage they’ll get from a lapping high tide with a tenuous link to climate change. How credible will they be when the issue gets critical? What will climate change be accused of? And how will the real issue get represented in the media quagmire?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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