On air

2 Feb

A liquid nitrogen tank has ruptured in a Georgia meat plant and six people are dead, from a grim combination of freeze-burns, or suffocation, or both. However, the Tribune’s hasty first report tells readers, in the time-honoured phrase, that “the leak was contained and not airborne”. That sounds reassuring, until a technologist friend messages to say: “Really? In that case it was probably the fact that they cooled the factory to -196C that caused the problems.”

Liquid nitrogen is liquid under pressure, but vaporises at just above -200C, so when it leaks it instantly boils. At ambient temperatures it’s always a gas, and therefore always airborne. In addition to its dangerous capacity to freeze whatever it touches, in a confined space it can also displace all the breathable air and cause asphyxiation. As my technologist friend put it, “in the event that you do have a nitrogen spill, the last thing you want to do is contain it”. The best thing to do is to vent it into the outside air – which is already 78% nitrogen, after all – at which point the suffocation danger evaporates. The less contained nitrogen is, the less dangerous it is.

In the shock of the event, the media wasn’t the only institution that seemed confused about this. The phrase “contained and not airborne” appears to have originated with county education officials, per AP, who kept children indoors at a nearby school – even though, of course, the air inside was already heavy with nitrogen, as all air is everywhere. The authorities also closed the road outside the plant, out in the open air, for over half a mile in each direction.

Why? Because that’s what you do. That’s the natural instinct when, lacking technical insight, you hear of a fatal gas leak. Stay indoors, contain, evacuate. Those are also the kind of questions reporters reflexively ask at press conferences. Has the gas escaped? Is there a cloud drifting over the city? You need a certain level of scientific knowledge to appreciate that a substance can be dangerous without being poisonous and that, if so, the measures to deal with it may be significantly different to those for dealing with toxins.

In a building full of arts graduates, which is essentially what a newspaper is, there may be a dozen people who can dissect a party conference speech, but often not one with reliable knowledge of the fifth most abundant element on Earth. An arts graduate myself, I email the news desk, hesitantly explaining what’s just been explained to me. We decide to delete that line from the story and await developments. Eventually, one of the wire services has the bright idea of calling the experts for comment, and receives the following response:

That explanation finds its way into the Tribune report and everyone else’s (even though in some cases the quote from the school board is also retained). The story is clarified. But it has revealed, once again, a blind spot in the reporting process.

As journalists, we rely on ourselves for political, sporting and cultural analysis, but are almost completely dependent on outside sources in scientific matters. What we have instead is a reservoir of layperson’s assumptions, apparently similar precedents – and, sometimes, cliches – that we draw upon at the first confused press conferences after a disaster.

The Tribune has tried to address this shortcoming in the past. We have had teams of scientists visit us to try to explain what successful new medical trials do, and don’t, signify, and how they should be reported. But perhaps the most useful resource for a hard-pressed former English student is knowledgeable STM friends who are not shy of getting in touch when, say, a basic arithmetical error appears on the website. If you are a mathematician or a scientist and you know a sub-editor, don’t be afraid to call if you’ve noticed something wrong. I promise we’ll be grateful.

One Response to “On air”

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  1. Zeroes and ones, part five | Ten minutes past deadline - April 13, 2021

    […] will hardly come as news to people who can do maths. But for arts-heavy newsrooms, this is slightly more perilous territory than the answer just being wrong – it is wrong, but […]

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