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 NewsLibrary.com 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.