The media coverage of Hurricane Irene was about the worst I’ve seen for any weather event thus far. Media coverage of weather events have, for reasons that completely elude me, grown increasingly alarmist and outrageous with each passing event. Every major weather event needs some kind of name (“snowmageddon”) and the continuous coverage of sensationalized information verges on parody.
Granted, we watched network news stations here in the metro Washington DC area and we were not in an area that was severely threatened by the storm. But that’s not what I got from the TV. I got that by keeping an eye on weather radar and looking out my window. Someone who was not familiar with the DC area–a tourist, for instance–watching yesterday’s coverage might reasonably gone into a full blown panic for all of the drama the newscasters were adding to the coverage. There were a number of things that bothered me about the storm coverage locally:
- It was far more alarmist than it was informative. A combination of looking out my windows and checking weather radar online gave me better information than the reporters in the field. Indeed, when it seemed as if the storm wouldn’t be as bad in our area as first predicted, news outlets seemed to make a point of being increasingly alarmist so as to milk the additional audiences they had for all they could get.
- The worst of the storm was always just a few minutes/hours away. No matter how close the storm was we never seemed to get to the worst of it, regardless of where the storm actually was. It seemed like the worse part of the storm was always looming just over our shoulder but never actually manifested.
- Reporters seemed to take particular pleasure at putting themselves into harms way and then warn others to heed evacuation notices. We saw lots of reporters on beaches that had been evacuated, with waves crashing in around them. “If you haven’t already left town,” they’d say, “get out now.” It didn’t make them look like brave reporters to me. It made them look like reckless idiots setting a poor example for others.
- There were an unusual number of commercials for insurance. Maybe there are always insurance commercials throughout the day during bad weather coverage but this was the first time it permeated my consciousness. I’m not sure I understood the point. If you weren’t insured as the storm approached, the commercials only served to remind you of that fact. If you were insured, the commercials were pointless.
- There was no one particularly bad station. All of the local networks were equally poor in their coverage of the hurricane. Fox was no worse that ABC. NBC was no worse than Fox. This is easy to explain, however: as bad as they were, the only place to go is up.
There is value to storm coverage. Providing accurate information about the impending weather, without sensationalizing it, can be very useful. Sensationalization only breeds mistrust of the news media. Informing viewers about closures and state and local government warnings is useful. Telling the audience the storm is the size of Europe is absolutely meaningless. Aside from the fact that many Americans have no idea how big Europe is, how does knowing that fact help you weather out the storm?
As it turned out, the storm was more or less a dud here. We had some wind and some rain, but we had a storm back in July that was far more fierce than this one. And while we did have a power outage, it seemed like it was almost an after-thought, and someone more cynical than I am might imagine that the power outage was contrived to make the opprobrious storm reporting seem more believable than it actually was.
I like @capitalweather on twitter. They run the Wash Post weather blog at postweather.com
They are more data driven then most forecasters I’ve seen and tend to shy away from hype.