Public service or weather porn, how much coverage of Hurricane Irene has been valuable, how much hype?

How can the media balance the public’s need to stay informed during severe weather with the risk of overestimating potential damage? An imbalance could hurt news outlets’ credibility in the face of future threats, harming a complacent, unprepared public.

This question arose again over the weekend, when Hurricane Irene loomed over much of the East Coast and dominated the airwaves and news websites. Journalists in different parts of the country responded differently, depending on their audiences and proximity to the storm.

While some of the differences in tone and volume of coverage were driven by location, some were driven by medium — broadcast ratings and Web traffic can skyrocket during severe weather.

Here is a sample of the conversation about the coverage.


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  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    @facebook-603809847:disqus @SuSaw:disqus @RobertaGuise:disqus @MiaLM:disqus , Thank you all so much for your very thoughtful comments on this story. You raise some issues I explore further in a piece I wrote later last night and this morning, about how to define and recognize hype: journ.us/pnHJh4. It sounds like by your criteria, Hurricane Irene coverage was not hype, and it wasn’t by mine either. –Julie

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Saunders/603809847 Mike Saunders

    Just read through some of the Jeff Jarvis tweets, and a bit of the coverage of the complaining coming from New Yorkers. 

    What Jarvis and others are forgetting is that when the hurricane veered northward toward the East Coast, it was still projected to be a strong Category 3 storm. Last Wednesday, conditions looked favorable for strengthening as it passed over the Gulf Stream. Officials used the best available information at the time to plan for evacuations and contingencies, and only late Thursday and Friday did forecasters have enough information to calculate the effects of wind shear and other weakening influences.

    Read through the message archive from the National Weather service to get a better sense of how the offical messages evolved: http://www.stormpulse.com/hurricane-irene-2011

  • http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/superbug Maryn McKenna

    In order to reply, your “poll” requires that people have power and be online. Therefore, by definition, only people in the lightly hit areas can reply — no one in  8′ of water in VT is going to be participating. You’ve constructed the poll from the start so that it is likely to return one particular answer.

  • Anonymous

    RT @jodikantor: “All of the news orgs posted people at the beach today, but the real story was in the mountains.” My perspective: We were fortunate not to lose power, primarily listened to Mayor Bloomberg’s announcements & followed twitter every now and then. Learned about & giggled with @elbloombito. Woke up to sunshine on Monday morning to learn that 700,000 people are without power in CT, that Vermont was devastated by Irene’s wrath and that metro New Yorkers think the Mayor overreacted. Personally, I LOVED the quiet emptiness of the City, with fair warning we were “prepared” for the worst and luckily spared much damage. Yes, window leaked. We helped a neighbor/retailer move her property to high ground. Nonetheless, her shop was flooded.  Hype, sure, but no one forced anyone to engage in media coverage. Many “consumers” didn’t have the choice to be unplugged. Overall, aren’t we better safe than sorry?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Saunders/603809847 Mike Saunders

    MiaLM,

    The national media played up the East Coast quake for two major valid reasons: novelty and reach. It was the strongest of its kind in almost 70 years and was felt by more people than the stronger and more frequent California quakes. (My office was shaking in Boston.) 

    Yes, it was much weaker than a California quake, but much of your state is riddled with active faults. Location is everything. Six inches of snow in Boston is moderately newsworthy but not hype worthy. What would happen if six inches of snow hit San Diego? It would be a bloodbath of TV news crews scrambling over each other for prime standup space. 

  • Anonymous

    You can’t over-warn people about potential weather catastrophes (which are increasing due to climate change), and weather, being an imprecise science full of chaotic systems, is hard to predict. In fact I’m always amazed at how accurate short-term weather predictions have become (“expect thunder and lightening around noon…” and sure enough, thunder bellows across the air at 12:03pm).

    The stories would seem less like hype if the reporters were removed from the rain and wind during storms. It looks silly, and is dangerous. TWC and other weather reporters are plopped into the middle of storms, to act as human weather vanes and impress the viewing public that there really is (or isn’t!) weather happening in [fill in location].

    These days it’s best to err on the side of caution.

  • Anonymous

    I am trying to be unbiased as I can on the West Coast (San Diego) but I feel the national media did overhype both Irene and the earthquake. And it wasn’t just the national media…one of our local TV stations spent between 10 and 15 minutes covering the earthquake on the day it happened and to me that was overkill. It can perhaps be explained by the fact that we probably have many reporters who are East Coast transplants. I have also heard from a relative in D.C. (a California transplant) that the earthquake felt stronger than a similarly sized earthquake would in California because of geologic differences in the makeup up the two coasts.

    I contrast this with the local coverage of the devastating wildfires in 2003 and 2007: There was not enough. In the disaster of 2003, in particular, each neighborhood literally had to rely on smoke signals as a guide for what action to take. I am hoping that the burgeoning trend of hyperlocal reporting will help us to cope when the next fiery calamity occurs.