A magnitude 6.3 earthquake ripped through the heart of the central Italian mountain town of L’Aquila in April 2009, killing more than 300 people. To the horror of much of the scientific community, seven scientists and engineers were later charged with manslaughter, accused of misleading the public and creating a false sense of security after a series of small earthquakes had shaken residents’ nerves in the months and days before the big quake.
Writer David Wolman, a contributing editor at Wired and Matter and the author, most recently, of The End of Money, spent six days in Italy following the initial guilty verdict. In his feature, “The Aftershocks,” which ran in Matter on August 24, 2014, he renders the victims’ families’ heartbreak, the science of risk communication, and the dangers of putting science on trial. (On November 10, 2014, an appeals court overturned the convictions of six of the seven men.) Here, Wolman tells TON guest contributor Amanda Mascarelli the story behind the story:
How did the story come about?
My initial idea for the story came from seeing what most people did when the charges were first announced—those 100-word news briefs in various publications. It was just one of those small things you see in passing that makes you stop and think. I had the initial, “Oh, that’s ridiculous” outrage that most people did when they first heard of the thing: that knee-jerk response of, “Galileo! This is awful.”
I thought, “This would be an incredible deep dive—obviously there’s so much more to this than just little 100-word news briefs.” Then I did what a lot of people in our field do [when science intersects with breaking news], which is assume that someone else is going to be on the monster feature about it.
Editors’ note: This article is published with funding support from the National Association of Science Writers.
In December 2012 (about seven weeks after the verdict), I sent my editor a link to a news piece about the conviction, with the following message: “Did you hear about this? Feels like this is ripe for a deep dive—so much so that I’d think someone was on it already. Yet I can’t find it.” He agreed and I immediately got going on a pitch for the meeting later that month.
Can you tell me about the pitch process?
The story was initially for Wired. My editor there, Mark Robinson, is second to none. But after a number of drafts, some alternate ideas from other editors, and a word count that went from X to X-minus-a-lot, it just wasn’t going to work. I don’t usually mind trimming, or even major pruning. At a certain point, though, it starts to feel a little like cutting off your own foot. Anyway, we had a mutual, professional, and respectful parting of the ways.
At about the same time, I was negotiating a contract to write a few stories for Matter. Word-count limitations don’t exist in cyberspace, which is nice. Longer stories aren’t necessarily better, obviously, but I felt like I had a second chance to explore some of the bigger ideas I had initially hoped to tackle. Thankfully, the Matter folks had heard of the earthquake trial and were interested in doing the story.
How did you start reporting the story?
It started with a conversation with one of the seven scientists. I just got in touch with him. And then I contacted a big geoscience guy in Southern California, Tom Jordan, whose name was coming up in a lot of short news items about the story. I talked with him about how to build my reporting plans and about what [was] being missed.
Ancient or poorly constructed buildings were the most badly damaged.
Also, early on I was corresponding with [Giampaolo] Giuliani, the self-described earthquake whisperer. Some media reports had suggested that he had predicted the earthquake. That is ridiculous, of course, but he was central to this story because the now-infamous meeting of the seven experts was convened primarily to correct misinformation that was infecting the community, courtesy of Giuliani. I made plans to spend time with him. I went into it with bias for sure, but I wanted to make sure I gave him a fair shake and every possible opportunity to explain to me what he was doing and convince me that the entire scientific community had it backwards.
I spent two nights at his house, listening to his whole thing, and spending time with his family. He was very kind and hospitable and trying hard—but also, as the story shows, full of it. I thought the time with Giuliani would distinguish my story from anything else you’d seen out there.
Read more »