Tom Harrington seemed anxious the other night as he piloted The World at Six, the venerable CBC radio news program sometimes referred to as The World in a Fix.
“Our next story has all the trappings of a sci-fi horror flick such as The Thing or Alien,” Harrington informed listeners as the studio clock marched past the 21-minute, 33-second mark of Friday evening’s program.
“An invader arrives and slowly takes over its new territory, seemingly unstoppable,” he continued. “It begins mating with the local species creating a new, even stronger creature.”
Lest his listeners suspect he had flipped his lid, Harrington hastened to assure them he was reporting fact, not fiction.
“Well, the story is all-too-real in the icy waters of Newfoundland. They’re being overtaken by strange, green crabs that eat everything they come across, even each other.”
Even each other?!
“As the CBC’s Chris O’Neill-Yates tells us, fishermen and scientists are struggling to find a solution,” Tom added, clicking off his mic before stepping out of the spotlight.
Next came the crying of gulls and a mumbled male voice, “numerous, they’re numerous,” and then, after three seconds, Chris O’Neill-Yates walked onstage to tell an old, familiar tale — one about nature on the rampage threatening the human economic and even moral order.
The late scholar Richard V. Ericson identified the main themes in such stories as “deviance and control,” which he called “the core ingredients of news.”
Not pretty to look at
In the radio version of her story and the one on the Web, O’Neill-Yates, and the scientist she interviewed, described the green crab as an “invasive species” that is “very aggressive,” “ferocious,” “voracious,” “cannibalistic” and “nasty.”
The CBC Web photo (on the right) depicts what looks like a sea monster while the caption calls the green crab “not pretty to look at” and “downright scary.”
These stories are not “fake news“; they’re more like a type of hyperreality blending what is real with what is fictional until there’s no clear dividing line between where reality ends and fiction begins.
In these CBC stories on the “strange” green crab, genuine scientific concern is blended with the plots of science fiction movies and colourful, action-packed language that depicts an ugly and violent creature capable of “devastating” a “very profitable” lobster fishery.
This is the “fun house” aspect of journalism that Mitchell Stephens describes in his book A History of News:
“Abnormalities loom large in journalism’s bent mirrors; perspectives are distorted; horrors materialize out of nowhere; everywhere we turn there is blood and danger,” Stephens writes.
“Much of the time journalists, like circus announcers, are reduced to barking and adding admonitions: ‘Marvelous!’ ‘Prodigious!’ ‘Frightful!’ ‘Lamentable!’ ‘Horrible!'”
Journalism and nature
So what’s wrong with a hyperreal, fun-house story about the green crab that blends science with science fiction and facts with entertainment?
Well, for one thing, it reinforces the age-old, human-centred view of nature as an endless resource for economic growth and consumption. And it ignores environmental movements such as deep ecology that argue we need to learn we’re part of the natural world and that its survival depends on our living ethically within it.
As O’Neill-Yates’s report notes in passing, it won’t be possible to eradicate the green crab; they’re here to stay. So, what’s the point in depicting them as sci-fi sea monsters or nasty, ferocious aliens?