Media Hurricane Hype?

Irene spurs debate about the quality of news coverage

Anderson Cooper and a CNN crew covering Irene on Sunday, August 28. Photo by Sean Hemmerle.

“An Epic Deluge,” read the banner the headline on the front page of Tuesday’s Burlington Free Press in Vermont, which featured ten pages of coverage of what it described as a “flood for the ages” unleashed by Hurricane Irene.

As of Monday afternoon, the storm had led to the deaths of at least forty people in eleven states, The Associated Press reported. By Tuesday morning, 3.3 million East Coast residents were without power, according to Reuters, down from a high of more than 5 million. Estimated damages ranged from $7 billion to $13 billion in an ABC News report, to $3 to $6 billion in a Wall Street Journal article. It could end up being one of the ten costliest disasters in Unites States history.

Wherever those numbers settle, the bottom line is that Irene was a destructive hurricane. A front-page story in The New York Times on Tuesday described the devastation state-by-state. Yet one of the most dominant news angles to emerge in the storm’s wake is whether or not the advance coverage was “hyped.” Two prominent media critics kicked off the debate.

“On Twitter, I’ve been ridiculing the #stormporn in coverage of #Irene: the predictable and numbing repetition, alarmism, and idiocy that is TV,” CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis blogged on Saturday. “Of course, the storm is serious but the coverage is often laughable and, some would argue, a matter of crying wolf. The inefficiency of the coverage is also boggling: crews everywhere, all shooting the same wind and water, yet saying nothing new.”

“Someone has to say it: cable news was utterly swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon,” The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz wrote on Sunday. “National news organizations morphed into local eyewitness-news operations, going wall to wall for days with dire warnings about what would turn out to be a Category 1 hurricane, the lowest possible ranking.”

The pushback came strong and fast. A number of journalists took issue with Jarvis via Twitter, but the dispute quickly went mainstream. On Monday morning, Matt Lauer and company devoted seven and half minutes of the Today show to refuting the idea that either the media or government authorities overreacted. That night, CNN’s Piers Morgan spent a few minutes talking to Newark mayor Cory Booker, who said hype was not one of his problems.

Journalist Chris Mooney, writing for DeSmogBlog, argued that a failure to explore worst-case scenarios would have been “downright dangerous”:

Nobody can perfectly forecast how a storm is going to turn out or where it is going to go—not even the experts. This storm clearly posed a very serious threat to New York, and while it certainly could have been worse, that’s precisely the point. We err on the side of caution. We warn people strenuously because to under-warn them would be unforgivable.

Others expressed the same sentiment. “Hype on,” said a Philadelphia Daily News editorial, “We’d rather be over-prepared … as for the back-to-back round-the-clock coverage of Irene and the warnings about its catastrophic potential, we wonder: What else do you do about a hurricane described as the ‘size of Europe’ as it heads toward densely packed cities?” In another editorial, The Telegraph in Nashua, New Hampshire surmised that debate about Irene hype is a “function of geography” and “lost on her victims.”

The most systematic, academic, and ultimately, persuasive, refutation of the media-hype meme came The New York Times’s Nate Silver. Using the database, he calculated the intensity of coverage of ninety-two named tropical cyclones that made landfall in the United States since 1980. By tallying the total number of stories that mentioned the storm by name, dividing by the average number of stories per day that were available in the database, and multiplying by ten, he came up with “News Units” (essentially representing one-tenth of all the stories published on a given day) for each cyclone. Irene ranked tenth with a score of 2.25 News Units. Silver says that that’s about right, since Irene was the eleventh most deadly storm (based on a death count of twenty-one at the time he crunched the numbers; with more than forty deaths now reported, it has moved into the top four), and the eight most economically destructive based on an estimate of $14 billion in damages.

“It wasn’t the worse-case scenario … but I don’t see how you dismiss it as hype,” Silver wrote. Nonetheless, he conceded that there were “some things” in Kurtz’s Daily Beast critique that he could agree with:

Certainly the tone and tenor of media coverage could be improved when it comes to hurricanes and other types of disasters. In particular, as you might expect, I think the coverage could stand to be a quite a bit more data-driven and less narrative-driven (if you can call it “narrative” to have some television correspondent mugging for the camera in his Windbreaker from the middle of a storm zone).

To be sure, there was plenty of that sort of “storm porn,” to use Jarvis’s term, but does that mean that journalists were, as he charged, “crying wolf?” David Ropeik, a consultant in risk communication and frequent contributor to CJR, told’s Alan Boyle he thinks the answer is no:

Yes, the information the media presented was wrapped up in breathless alarmism … But we forget two things: First, surveys show that the public knows that about the media. And second, under all the alarmism was really important information that helped people stay safe: storm track timing, tips for preparedness, evacuation routes. It was alarmist in voice, but an informative tool. And that probably helped more than it hurt. … There was no panic, there was no hysteria … Other storms have been hyped, and have not panned out, and yet people still took reasonable precautions this time … The ‘cry-wolf’ thing didn’t happen.

In that sense, the storm porn was, at worst, the cheese on the broccoli. But Jarvis wanted more vegetables. He suggested that news outlets “aggregate and curate reports from witnesses and data from officials,” visualize data, and establish readers’ forums for sharing information. He complimented Talking Points Memo for highlighting outage maps from power companies, The New York Times for compiling a list of officials using social media to broadcast emergency information, and The Wall Street Journal for mapping New York City evacuation centers using Foursquare.

There’s little doubt that there could have been more of this public service-oriented coverage, but to some extent there was more than is suggested by the critics. My colleague Alysia Santo complimented the Watershed Post, for example, whose live blog has been aggregating official updates and serving as a readers’ forum in the Catskill Mountains area, which was hard hit by Irene, but lies in a “news desert.”

As for Jarvis’s contention that journalists could have afforded a few more minutes “to deliver real news” about current events such as ongoing violence in Libya and Syria, it doesn’t hold up. According to the Pew Research Center’s News Coverage Index for August 22-28, unrest in the Middle East was the top story, accounting for 26 percent of the news hole in all media while Irene occupied 21 percent. The hurricane was the top story on TV (the focus of Jarvis’s ire), filling 33 percent of the news hole, but it is simply unfair to say that broadcast journalists ignored the events in Libya and elsewhere.

A much bigger problem, in terms of geographic focus, was that the media spent too much time focused on big East Coast cities rather than the more rural areas, which ultimately fared worse. As Media Bistro’s TV Newser pointed out, “once it became clear that Irene would not be bringing the devastation to New York City … the cable news channels returned to regular programming.”

Yes, coverage of the hurricane could have been better—but coverage of every story could always be better. TV news is what it is; our nonstop news cycle means that whenever there is a slow-moving, breaking news story, television is going to exploit it, often in ways that are inefficient, as Jarvis suggested, and sometimes kind of silly. Yet given what the experts were saying early on about Irene, the talk about too much hype seems like, well, hype. If Irene had behaved a bit differently—by maintaining its Category 1 strength right up to the shores of Long Island for instance—the critics would be having a very different conversation right now.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: ,