Surge Overdrive: Storm Coverage, Balance and Hurricane #Irene

NASA satellite image of Hurricane Irene

Where hurricanes are common, particularly in New Orleans, I am told that there is a tradition of having “Hurricane Parties,” in which the hardy locals stay where the rest pack up, to confront the storm with gusto. It is, perhaps, a measure of the distance between those whose duty it is to warn society of the dangers of a storm and those who have to live in neighborhoods soon to feel the storm’s wrath.

I wonder if we aren’t beginning to see some of that same distance on a national level as harsher weather becomes more common. From monster winter storms to visitations in the North by hurricanes more commonly expected in warmer climes, there is no question that weather is changing. The dangers of serious weather conditions are inarguably real. But when one epic crisis follows the next, its hard to imagine that the coverage isn’t starting to get a bit overblown.

And if we are to be honest about the situation, we cannot ignore the fact that The Weather Channel’s huge uptick in viewership this weekend means that eyeballs that might have been on CNN were instead on TWC. CNN would certainly like those eyeballs and the advertising revenue they represent back, as would MSNBC, Headline News and your local stations. Of course economics have to play into the volume of coverage. And if not economics, at least lets admit that being the only girl dancing at your own party is lonely.

Irene was and continues to be every bit as devastating as the more sober assessments claimed it would be. To that extent, the media has been 100% right about this particular disaster, though we know its been wrong at least as often. The fair argument is that if these dangers were not made very clear to the public, worse things could potentially have happened. That is true, but here’s a question: what are the consequences when the viewing public stops paying attention and starts throwing nation-wide hurricane parties?

The Journo that Cried Hurricane

Jim Cantore is supposed to be waist-deep in water and getting pelted with hail. That’s what we expect of Jim Cantore, journalism and meteorology be damned. So when Jim is loafer-deep in heavy but not-unseen rainfall at Battery Park, it isn’t at all surprising that the audience greets him with disappointment and moves on. This is especially true when hours of coverage have been dedicated to the storm before it even arrives. The danger isn’t the story; the rain isn’t the story; the hurricane was never the story. Jim Cantore was the story, and he disappointed.

Do you see what happened, there?

With Katrina, the worst damage came not with the hurricane, but the flooding that happened later. Just like this storm. And just like this storm the audience had been bored by over-hyped cult of personality media coverage before the danger even started. We “dodged a bullet,” remember?

This time, the media appears to be itself disappointed by the lack of wiz-bang hurricane images of New York. This story refused to follow the traditional disaster movie plot line, where hours of anticipation precede a colossal storm and then its over and our heroes are safe to return to the studios. Instead, the real danger happens in all the boring bits that normally get cut off at the end of a movie to fit it into the neat two-hour package we expect.

And what about next time? Do media outlets offer the same level of coverage, only to be ignored? Or do they back down on their coverage, only to have the storm be taken less seriously?

Breaking the Narrative Trap

It seems like the biggest problem with news coverage of storm systems is just the sense I mentioned above, where the media paints a cinematic picture. There is nothing wrong – and everything right – about having reporters fanned out over a potential disaster area. Even if nothing happens, that you have reporters on scene to confirm nothing has happened is itself good coverage of relevant news, as weather patterns go. But it would be nice if the media did not spend three days in advance of a storm with wall-to-wall coverage, breaking news, live feeds and the like. Doing so only builds anticipation that probably will not be matched by the weather that follows.

And since it is weather we’re talking about, perhaps using the meteorologists is preferable to the second-hand coverage of an anchor on a desk. Everybody understands that the weatherman can be wrong – its a risk we all understand is a necessary component of weather. But when the anchors start discussing the same subject, its given a more definitive character that weather cannot live up to. Anchors need to be authoritative. Weathermen need to be analytical and circumspect. Its about using the tools you have effectively.

Warning citizens of a potentially life-threatening storm is a necessary function a media outlet. But doing so does not require a constant drum beat of coverage, in fact, such coverage does eventually get ignored by people trying to parse a dozen stories into useable content. Anything repetitive will sooner or later get ignored. Because we’ve seen this movie before.