The Media Today

The difficulties of covering Hurricane Dorian

September 4, 2019

The Hurricane Dorian news cycle, like the storm itself, has been churning for over a week now, and is not done yet. Dorian attracted coverage as it approached Puerto Rico early last week; residents feared a repeat of Hurricane Maria, which wreaked mass destruction on the island two years ago. In the end, Dorian glanced past Puerto Rico. The Bahamas were not so lucky: over the long weekend, Dorian battered the islands with historic force, crushing entire neighborhoods. All the while, residents of America’s Atlantic coast have been glued to constantly changing predictions about the storm’s next moves and possible impacts. Dorian has demanded media attention, but it has been a devilishly tricky story to cover.

On a daily basis, articles have appeared noting the difficulty of accurately forecasting Dorian’s path. Last week, Eric Berger, a meteorologist and editor at Ars Technica, called predictions “a mess”; on Sunday, Kirby Wilson, of the Tampa Bay Times, explained that the storm’s slow movement but rapid intensification has given forecasters a headache. Some experts, including Jennifer McNatt of the National Weather Service, insist the forecasts have been accurate and constantly updated; the problem, Princeton Professor Gabriel Vecchi told The New York Times, is that hurricane models have become so reliable that the relative unpredictability of Dorian has been unsatisfying. The press, unavoidably, has passed this uncertainty on to its readers—the storm was landing as early as Sunday, then Monday, then Tuesday, and so on—along with warnings that slight deviations in Dorian’s path could make a world of difference to conditions on the ground. “The week-long Dorian coverage, magnified by the worst-case scenario taking place in the Bahamas, has been exhausting to watch—much less endure,” Kathleen Parker, a columnist for The Washington Post, wrote yesterday from South Carolina. Parker dubbed Dorian “the Godot of hurricanes… we wait, and wait, and wait, and wait.”

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To an extent, the uncertainty is the story—reporters have covered the agonized reactions of people from Florida through the Carolinas, many of whom still don’t know if they should get out of town or ride the storm out. But that uncertainty has also posed a sharp challenge for newsrooms, particularly in the states in Dorian’s possible path. According to the Times, angry viewers have bombarded their local stations’ social-media pages, accusing their meteorologists of misleading them; often, such complainants are armed with bogus information gleaned from amateur “social mediarologists.” In the internet age, anxious news consumers have constant access to weather information of varying quality, leaving news outlets scrambling to keep up, even if there’s not much new to share. “It used to be, ‘Hey, I heard there’s a storm out there,’” Chris Smith, a meteorologist at WJHG in Panama City Beach, Florida, told the Times. “Now it’s like, ‘What’s that cloud doing coming off of Africa?’” Nationally, Ted Johnson writes for Deadline, Dorian’s unpredictability has been “a bit vexing” for news directors at major networks, who haven’t quite been sure where they should send their crews and talent.

CBS, CNN, ABC, and NBC all now have at least some presence in the Bahamas, where the Dorian story is anything but a hypothetical waiting game. (Impressively, WPLG, an ABC affiliate in Miami, sent a reporter and photographer to the country last week; the reporter, Jenise Fernandez, said there were moments when she “thought for sure we weren’t going to make it.”) Teams on the ground have faced logistical challenges, with power, internet, and physical access to the worst affected places all, at times, cut off. News outlets have relied on clips posted to social media by residents and those in touch with them. Yesterday, CNN broadcasted gut-wrenching aerial footage, shot by the “stormchaser” Brandon Clement, offering sweeping views of the devastation. But we still don’t know anything like the full scale of the damage. The death toll stands at seven, but will surely rise.

Another uncertainty for the press to grapple with? Dorian’s relationship to climate change. Michael Mann and Andrew E. Dessler, experts at Penn State and Texas A&M, respectively, write in The Guardian that we already know enough to say that climate change made Dorian worse. They concede, however, that it’s far too soon to be more specific than that, a caveat echoed by other reporters and scientists. (“There have been intense storms in the past,” Vecchi told the Times.) Linking individual weather events to climate change is always fraught. Contradictory criticism of Dorian coverage—groups on the left say the media ignored the climate-change link; outlets on the right say the media overplayed it—only adds to the confusion for readers.

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Covering hurricanes is always hard; Dorian, it seems, has been unusually so. Up to now, the most helpful coverage has been grounded in facts we do know for sure: climate change is generally making hurricanes worse, climate change-denying politicians have left citizens vulnerable to hurricane damage, and so on. As we learn more details about the catastrophe in the Bahamas, we should center them, too. “Media,” Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist, pleaded last night, “We need 24hr coverage of the humanitarian emergency currently unfolding in the Bahamas.”

Below, more on Dorian, and climate change:

  • A strongly worded editorial: On Monday, the editorial board of The Miami Herald praised Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, for including the press in his briefings with emergency managers ahead of Dorian. That practice had been stopped by DeSantis’s predecessor, Rick Scott, now a US senator for Florida; the Herald branded Scott an “information control freak” and urged him to “stand down and show DeSantis some respect.”
  • Whatever the weather: CJR has often charted the complex relationships between communities and their local weather reporters. Last year, during Hurricane Florence, Andrew McCormick explored their indispensable appeal, but not everyone is enamored: in June, Cinnamon Janzer found that viewers frequently complain when local meteorologists cut into entertainment or sports programming to warn of extreme weather. Also in June, Justin Ray checked in on the Conference on Broadcast Meteorology, where meteorologists discussed the best ways to keep people up-to-date.
  • Hall or nothing: Tonight, 10 Democratic presidential candidates will appear back-to-back-to-back on CNN for a seven-hour town-hall event focused on climate change. It’s a safe bet Dorian will feature. Emily Tamkin, CJR’s public editor for CNN, has some advice for the moderators; if they “keep their focus on the sense of urgency, the tangible plans candidates do and don’t have, and the ways in which the crisis is palpable and relevant to voters viewing at home, CNN has a chance to significantly better its televised coverage of the climate,” she writes.
  • “Cause for concern”: In other climate-related media news, the Times dropped its sponsorship of an upcoming oil-industry conference; the paper said the subject matter “gives us cause for concern.” Protesters with the Extinction Rebellion movement had called on the Times to pull out.
  • Covering Climate Now: As ever, you can find details of CJR and The Nation’s project to increase the visibility of climate coverage here. Over 170 outlets have signed on as partners.

Other notable stories:

  • Last month, Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, notified Brian Karem, White House reporter for Playboy, of a “preliminary decision” to suspend his press pass, then yanked it; Karem had been involved in a confrontation with Sebastian Gorka, the Trump aide turned talk-radio host, in the Rose Garden. Karem sued to get his pass back. Yesterday, a judge ruled in his favor. It was the second time a court has ordered the White House to return a reporter’s pass; the first came last year, following the sudden revocation of Jim Acosta’s credentials. Officials hoped that by giving Karem advance warning, they would avoid a second defeat on due-process grounds, but the judge concluded that Karem’s rights had still been violated. The White House Correspondents’ Association hailed the decision, but reminded its members to behave professionally.
  • More Gorka news: yesterday, Jeanine Pirro, the Fox News host, was caught on a hot mic while calling into Gorka’s show on the Salem Radio Network. Pirro complained about her bosses’ control over her schedule, and admitted that Fox suspended her earlier this year, following her diatribe about Rep. Ilhan Omar. (CNN reported the suspension at the time, but it was never publicly confirmed.) Media Matters for America has the audio.
  • Bloomberg Law published a story about “anti-Semitic” Facebook posts by Leif Olson, an official in Trump’s Labor department; after Bloomberg Law requested comment from Labor, it was told that Olson had resigned. But the posts in question were clearly satirical, not racist. Yesterday, Bloomberg Law faced a torrent of criticism for misleading readers; it stood behind its story anyway. “Anti-Semitism in the Trump administration is real and warrants close coverage,” Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg writes, but “there is a lack of journalistic knowledge and expertise on the subject that leads to mistakes like this.”
  • Last week, the Times reported that a “loose network” of Trump-allied operatives plans to scour the social-media histories of prominent reporters for incriminating statements. Now, Axios’s Mike Allen reports that the operatives are looking to raise $2 million to fund the effort ahead of the 2020 election. A clutch of major outlets are in its crosshairs.
  • Amid union negotiations at The New Yorker, the magazine moved to hire its subcontracted editors and fact-checkers as full-fledged employees, boosting their rights at work, Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson reports. Elsewhere, staffers at the LA Times walked out yesterday in protest of stalled contract talks between their guild and management.
  • The Times and the Post both have flagship daily news podcasts; now The Wall Street Journal is joining the club with The Journal., a co-production with Gimlet, which is owned by Spotify. The podcast, hosted by Journal reporters Kate Linebaugh and Ryan Knutson, goes out around 4pm EST, and focuses on financial news. NBC’s Dylan Byers has more.
  • The Cal Channel, a replica of C-SPAN that covers California’s state legislature, will go off the air in October. Bosses say a 2016 ballot measure requiring legislative hearings to be posted online renders the channel moot; George Skelton, of the LA Times, says that’s “baloney.” The channel will disappear “at a time of declining news media coverage of the state Capitol,” Skelton writes. “There hasn’t been a full-time TV reporter here in years.”
  • And in Pennsylvania, a fire destroyed the building that houses the Susquehanna Transcript, a local newspaper. Ashley Biviano has more for the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.