It was all about “The Big Dig” this weekend in snow-blanketed communities from Long Island to Maine that faced a massive effort to uncover cars and roads buried by the punishing nor’easter that struck the Northeast on Friday. People were also digging out from a flurry of media coverage that was as intense as the storm itself.

The catchy name, Nemo, a creation of The Weather Channel, caught on with many news outlets, social media and the public, and quickly became a trending topic on Twitter. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation just four months ago, the audience was already tuned in, but outlets primed them further with headlines that billed the storm as “historic.”

While the disaster reports provided an important early warning system along the New York-Boston corridor, the drumbeat of snow and wind updates, particularly on cable networks, took on a disquieting tone of sports coverage, in which the “winners” were the towns with the most snowfall and highest wind speeds.

Foremost among them, of course, was The Weather Channel, with its non-stop “Tracking Nemo” forecasts. The cable network announced last October that it would start naming winter storms on its own, an attempt to mirror the far more official naming of intense tropical storms by the US government’s National Hurricane Center and the World Meteorological Organization (whose monikers, from Katrina to Sandy, are indelibly imprinted in most Americans’ memories).

The Weather Channel’s latest name continued to create online grousing Saturday, with NPR’s Two Way news blog asking “Is Nemo A No-Go Name for You?” Mark Memmott questioned whether Nemo was even appropriate, given its popular connotations:

Now, while The Weather Channel will point out that Nemo is “a Greek boy’s name meaning ‘from the valley,’ ” and that it means ‘nobody’ in Latin, those definitions probably aren’t what most people think of first. As The New York Times’ Media Decoder blog says, Nemo brings to mind ‘the adorable orange fishie in the Disney/Pixar film Finding Nemo.’ That’s perhaps not the image to go with a potentially historic storm that is expected to dump a lot of snow on millions of people.”

Nonetheless, Memmott added, NPR standards and practices guru Stuart Seidel gave station hosts and correspondents permission to call the storm Nemo if they wished and said NPR has “no rigid policy” on the issue. The National Weather Service, many professional meteorologists, and newspapers like The New York Times and The Boston Globe are strictly avoiding Nemo and other Weather Channel names, however.

Nemo did spawn a humorous Twitter account with the handle @Nemopocalypse, “the Zelig of Storms.” One tweet wryly noted that “we all meet our maker at some point. In my case I look forward to meeting the marketing folks at @weatherchannel.”

“The whole storm-naming-phenomenon is just part of a recurring cycle of frenzy, buildup, climax and plateau that we seem to collectively observe with each major weather storm system these days,” wrote Elise Hu in another NPR weekend blog post. She dissected how “The Blizzard ‘Nemo’ Highlights the Hype Cycle of Storms,” breaking down the typical storm hype cycle into five distinct phases:

  • The Trigger: Meteorologists agree that a major storm is on the way; a storm name triggers the start; and assorted social media hashtags follow.
  • The Expectation Buildup: Headlines with words like historic, extreme, crushing, and imminent appear; state and local officials prepare; airlines and trains cancel; and public anxiety sets in.
  • The Wait: The public “gets whipped up into a frenzy” that often crests before the storm even begins, leaving a gap until the storm arrives that the media fills with images such as empty airports and grocery stores stripped of bottled water, batteries, and nonperishable food.
  • The Storm: While many storms are shorter than the preceding stages, Nemo’s exceptional length provided added fodder for news coverage.
  • The Coverage Plateau and Petering Out: “Coverage shifts from the disaster to what it left behind” and may drag out for a week or more.

“The danger,” said Hu, “is that while a hype cycle tends to follow the same pattern, storms themselves can vary widely in their magnitude, scope and degree of damage to humans and creatures. If the go-to aftermath stories are the same, the public response runs the risk of becoming routine.”

Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.