The Media Today

Do look up

May 13, 2024
A person takes a photo of Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights in Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, May. 11, 2024. (Ethan Cairns /The Canadian Press via AP)

In 2006, I was asleep in a cabin on the Lofoten Islands, in the north of Norway, when my parents woke me up and told me to come outside. I thought a sea eagle must be flying over the house (we had been on a boat tour to watch them earlier in the day), but it was actually the northern lights, the scientific phenomenon known as aurora borealis. They danced across the sky in flashes of vivid green—or maybe that’s the wrong metaphor, maybe they pulsed, almost imperceptibly, from one place to another. The effect was hard to describe. It was also magical. We tried to capture it using a digital camera, but the photos didn’t do it justice. My dad edited some of them after the fact to draw out the color, but the effect was a grainy simulacrum.

On Friday, I was heading to my childhood home near Plymouth, in the far southwest of England, when I got a push notification from the New York Times alerting me to a solar storm that might imminently make the aurora visible even in locations where it is uncommon. I googled stories about the phenomenon in British outlets. The first one I read suggested that it might be visible as far south as the middle of the country—an unusual enough development, but not one that gave me personally much hope. Where I come from, seeing the aurora is practically unheard of.

That night, I was in bed scrolling Twitter as users across the UK started to post stunning images of the aurora in their night skies. One user had posted an image from Dartmoor, a national park not far away. According to my dad, the aurora had been spotted there before and still not been visible from my village, where there is generally more light pollution. Still, I went to my window and stared in a northerly direction. After a few minutes, the sky seemed to change color, and what appeared to be columns of white light appeared, arcing above the house. The effect was subtle, but enough to make me wake up my dad and run outside. I took a picture of the sky with my iPhone and was stunned by what its camera had picked up: shocking-pink shards of light variously beaming and twisting, like sand in an hourglass, down into a turquoise haze.

I was not alone. As the hours passed, similarly extraordinary photos—from locations as diverse as Hungary, British Columbia, and Florida—flooded social media; traditional media weren’t far behind, collating some of the best images into online galleries or putting them on their front pages. (There were also ample online references to an aurora joke from The Simpsons; one made its way into the Times, knowingly or otherwise.) The prevailing effect seemed to be one of unity in awe, cutting, however briefly, through an age of polarization and toxic online debate and disinformation. “It’s crazy to think, Bill, that this is a blip in the universe,” Abby Phillip told her colleague Bill Weir on CNN, which went into special-coverage mode and brought on guests including another Bill—Nye, the Science Guy. “We’re blips, yeah,” Weir responded. “It gives us a sense of humble perspective. We’re on this little blue-and-green marble, hurtling through space, at the mercy of physics.”

Phillip also remarked that some imagery of the aurora almost looked like it had been generated by artificial intelligence. We are living through a moment, of course, of rapid technological progress but also of uncertainty as to the reliability of images (even if, as I noted recently, concern about manipulated imagery is far from new). The aurora, at least as I experienced it, entered into this climate in a strange and disconcerting way; if, in 2006, I couldn’t digitally capture something my eyes could see, this time the effect was reversed, thanks to the power of the camera now in my pocket. I could still see the aurora with my naked eye: the night sky appeared as if through various light filters; I perceived the same indescribable, almost imperceptible dynamics I saw in Norway. And yet the vivid colors were visible only through my phone. What I was seeing in my photos was the truth. And yet looking at them felt vaguely post-truthy. The same applied online—looking at the photos of others, it was hard to tell what they had actually seen, or what that even meant.

The world feels more fragile now than it did in 2006 (at least, it does to me), in no small part thanks to all the toxic online discourse and destabilizing effects of new information technology. If the story of the aurora intersected with these dynamics, it also shined its light through other aspects of this perceived fragility. In major outlets, coverage of the phenomenon and all the related excitement was cut up with coverage of the cause—the solar storm activity—and its less beautiful potential effects: such storms can mess with satellites and GPS systems, and can even disrupt parts of power grids down on Earth. (The recent activity has not wreaked widespread havoc, though it has not been without impact; 404 Media reports that it compromised agricultural equipment used in so-called “precision farming.”) In 2019, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that only two possible natural disasters would be able to hamper the entire United States at the same time: a pandemic, or a serious solar storm.

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If the communications and power infrastructure that such a storm could disrupt is (relatively) new, the storms themselves, of course, are not. News articles about the phenomena often trace their recorded history to the Carrington Event, an 1859 episode, named for a British astronomer, that itself produced dazzling auroras far and wide (and attendant, apparently enthusiastic media coverage of them) while disrupting the telegraph systems used, among other things, as a key node in the communication of news. “Over the years, at odd intervals, this pattern kept repeating: brilliant night skies followed by troubling consequences, which changed in concert with evolving technologies,” Kathryn Schulz wrote in The New Yorker earlier this year. “Teletype machines ceased to operate; or transatlantic cables stopped working; or worldwide radio circuits fell silent; or hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines used to send and receive wire stories all went down at the same time.” According to the Space Weather Prediction Center, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (which Schulz profiled in her piece), this weekend’s storm was the “most extreme” to reach Earth since 2003.

Schulz suggested that the field of “space weather” has been a “mostly marginal” subject, even among policymakers—at least until 2008, when the National Academy of Sciences published a report warning that a Carrington-size storm could overwhelm American infrastructure. In terms of public awareness and media attention, I would contend that the subject has remained fairly marginal—though stories about it (like Schulz’s) pop up from time to time in major outlets, especially during periods (like the present moment) approaching “solar maximum,” or the point of highest solar activity on an eleven-year cycle. “Nearly everything the modern world relies on could fail if disabled by a serious enough solar storm,” the Washington Post warned in a flashily illustrated editorial last week, even before the auroras. “The good news is, researchers estimate that storms of sufficient magnitude to cause real havoc occur only once every hundred or so years. The bad news is, we’re probably overdue.”

The solar cycle, as Schulz put it, is not “wholly determinative” of activity; a massively disruptive solar storm remains unlikely to hit Earth, and observers differ as to how well prepared we would be if one did. (In its editorial, the Post credited the US government with taking the risks seriously while urging it to go further.) Last year, a group of researchers writing in the journal Space Weather recognized that “media interest/coverage of space weather has been increasing as we approach solar maximum,” and argued that it is “not uncommon” for such coverage to indulge in hyperbole, not least in its references to the Carrington Event. (Indeed, past headlines about powerful solar storms have warned of the possibility of the apocalypse or of Earth being “blasted back to the Stone Age.”) The researchers also noted that the surge in interest is an opportunity to educate the public about a scientific field that is not (yet) the subject of rampant popular conspiracy theories. And they argued that a balance must be found between hyperbole and the contrary instinct to talk down the real impact of space weather, and thus, even if indirectly, the research field as a whole.

If FEMA likened the potential disruption of a major solar storm to that of a pandemic, the former strikes me as throwing up similar issues for the media as the latter, which, since FEMA wrote in 2019, is no longer a hypothetical scenario. Back in 2022, I wrote at length for CJR about the media’s response to the pandemic and the many challenges it involved, including, but not limited to, a lack of data (especially early on) and attendant huge uncertainty, frayed public trust in experts (and in the media itself), and the difficulty of covering highly complex systems. Even now, coverage of solar activity raises some similar questions—as well as the dilemma, especially acute as the pandemic emerged, of how to balance due urgency in covering mitigation measures against the risk of being seen to cry wolf, and the implications of that for trust. Just because a major pandemic happened, of course, doesn’t mean that a mass solar disruption event is imminent. But these sorts of questions are applicable to all sorts of stories. With the pandemic fading, all too quickly, from our collective memory, the present burst of solar activity should be a reminder, at least, that they are worth thinking about in an ongoing way.

Another challenge of covering the pandemic was that, in many ways, COVID was not directly visible; its visual language in the media thus became one of masks, and hospitals, and mass graves—all grim symbols, even if some of them were imprecise, or contested, or even stigmatizing. The auroras over the weekend were very visible, through our phone cameras at any rate, even if the feelings aroused by the resulting images—beauty, wonder, cosmic-insignificance-via-pundit—themselves entailed some dissonance with the underlying risk. Fortunately, much of the coverage filled in the scientific context. And there’s nothing wrong, in an often ugly world, with pausing to give a platform to the awesome. When it comes to the potential effects of solar storms, the Post wrote in its editorial, “with the right preparation, the real worst-case scenario could be a severe storm striking on a cloudy night.”

Other notable stories:

  • David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, profiled the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “one of the few Hebrew-language institutions that consistently attempt to wrestle, however imperfectly, with the realities of what is going on in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank”—and to “present multiple truths to readers who might prefer to avoid them.” Meanwhile, officials in Tel Aviv reportedly detained and questioned journalists from Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, a London-based outlet, on suspicion that they might be working for Al Jazeera, the Qatar-funded network that Israel banned last weekend. And the Times spoke with pro-Palestinian protesters in the US who have turned to Al Jazeera and other outlets for their coverage of the war in Gaza, valuing the channel’s on-the-ground reporting and different perspective from that of much of the US media.
  • Jerusalem Demsas, of The Atlantic, makes the case that the US is stuck in a “protest feedback loop,” with demonstrations becoming more frequent but, on the whole, less effective, in no small part due to the dynamics of the modern media ecosystem. “Mass actions no longer require organized groups with members who pay dues, professional staffers who plan targeted actions, and designated leaders who can negotiate with public officials. They just need someone who can make a good Instagram graphic,” Demsas argues. “But notwithstanding the clear benefits of social media for protest participants, the lure of racking up views on TikTok or X and getting on the homepage of major news sites can overwhelm other strategic goals.” 
  • For The Ankler, Claire Atkinson explored how David Pecker, the former National Enquirer publisher who recently testified in court to his role in helping Donald Trump conceal embarrassing stories, came to invest in George, a magazine founded by John F. Kennedy Jr. George “gave Pecker an entrĂ©e into elite circles,” including Trump, who would feature on the magazine’s cover, Atkinson writes. “If George had fulfilled its early promise, perhaps Pecker would have had a different trajectory in the media world, one that may have made him less famous—but also less infamous.”
  • And WABC, a radio station in New York owned by the Republican billionaire John Catsimatidis, suspended Rudy Giuliani and canceled his daily talk show after he disputed the results of the 2020 presidential election on air, in violation of company policy. (Giuliani claimed not to be aware of any such policy.) “He did it to himself,” Catsimatidis told the New York Post, of Giuliani’s suspension. “I thought he was a great mayor for the city of New York so I always try to support him. But you can’t cross the line.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.