Carlson: Why Do Governments Lie about Disasters?

Ann Carlson of the Legal Planet blog was initially impressed by the Japanese government’s openness about the unfolding nuke crisis. But today there were signs that the U.S. government thinks things are more serious than their Japanese counterparts have been saying, which makes her wonder what’s going on. From Why Do Governments Cover Up the Truth About Environmental Disasters?:

I’m reminded a bit of the Obama Administration’s efforts in the early days of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to seriously understate the rate of leakage of oil  even in the face of independent and credible expert conclusions that the spill was far larger than either the government or BP wanted to admit. After investigating the response to the oil spill, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Drilling and Oil Spill blasted the administration for its lack of candor and explained in very clear terms that the consequences of lack of candor go far beyond a PR disaster.  To quote the Commission’s staff:

The absence of trust fuels public fears, and those fears in turn can cause major harm, whether because the public loses confidence in the federal government’s assurances that beaches or seafood are safe, or because the government’s lack of credibility makes it harder to build relationships with state and local officials, as well as community leaders, that are necessary for effective response actions.

One could easily substitute a few words and make the same claims about the Japanese government’s handling of the nuclear crisis if the US version turns out to be the correct one.

So why do governments engage in obfuscation in the case of a major environmental crisis?  Is it because they fear that the political fallout from a disaster is likely to increase with the size of the calamity and therefore wishful thinking leads them to underestimate the harm?  I honestly don’t get it. Candor breeds trust, something badly needed during an emergency.  And yet governments seem incapable of learning that lesson.

I think she’s right that wishful thinking is a factor. There’s also this: Politicians are in the business of fostering a particular set of public perceptions. “I’m the best candidate/vote for me.” “The steps our administration has taken have been instrumental in bringing about [good outcome X].” “[Bad outcome Y] had nothing to do with the actions of our administration.” And so on. A lot of those things may have only a tenuous relationship with the truth, yet politicians’ overriding imperative is to convince people that those things are, in fact, true. In a crisis, with solid information in short supply and public perceptions in an especially volatile state, the urge to spin reality in as favorable a direction as possible is surely overwhelming.

Except that with disasters, reality has a way of asserting itself despite the spin. And as Carlson points out, squandering credibility by engaging in politics-as-usual can lead to very real harm.

4 Responses to “Carlson: Why Do Governments Lie about Disasters?”

  1. shcb Says:

    I think it usually starts with good intentions, folks in the government don’t want to panic people, for good reason. Most people die in the stampede to the front door, not the fire in the auditorium, no matter how bad the blaze. We as spectators also tend to look at these situations from the beginning to the point in the disaster we are in right now, forgetting what went on between. Now there certainly is some CYA involved in these situations, and politicians are masters at protecting the back side but that is usually only part of the equation.

  2. knarlyknight Says:

    Having worked closely in and around government, I’d agree much with shcb statement.

    Unless there is an explicit culture for openness and an often repeated organizational mantra to be completely forthright, then the default, underlying mentality in government (and large corporations too) is “how are these statements going to make us look?” People get so focussed on crafting the message just right that the message becomes more real to them than the disaster itself!

    Add to that some uncertainties and you’ll get communications advisors imploring people to “stick to the facts.”

    Hence, instead of stating that:

    there is a 75% of full meltdown at 3 of the 6 Fukishima reactor sites that could cause a circle of death within 50 km of the plant so get the hell out of the area just in case the bloody things explode before we can get them under control!

    we get:

    Current efforts to cool the rods are continuing with 3 of the 6 plants nearly stabilized. A risk of meltdown still exists so please follow the evacuation instructions as provided by your local emergency response crews.”

  3. leftbehind Says:

    Because governments lie about everything else, too.

  4. dayana Says:

    I would like to look at this from a different angle. Governments have become over the years more and more dependent like all of us on an unsustainable economical pattern of creating debt, in order to avoid a complete breakdown, governments need to keep up creating revenue, which is still not an excuse for lies, though as governments are really bad sales people and even worse at customer care and any changes in consumer behaviour will without any doubt result in severe revenue loss, people are being lied to instead of being offered alternatives. Just another quick observation changing the sales rep (politician) representing the small man at the voting pole, will not change bad habits in the sales process.

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