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.
“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 MSNBC.com’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.