I grew up in Chicago, where blizzards rarely closed schools. I’ve been through Hurricanes Fran and Floyd in North Carolina and Charley and Jeanne in Florida. So, I laugh when Washington, D.C. shuts down over a few inches of snow and I ignore tropical developments that seem likely to stay over water. I’m rarely concerned about the threat of severe weather, so when I see news about it, it might look like hype to me.
There is much important news about which I care very little. I typically ignore entire sections of news websites or newspapers: sports, business, science. But few would argue coverage of those subjects is hype.
Hype is not simply the difference between what I think matters and what you think matters. It’s not even the difference between what I think matters and what leads a newscast or a front page. Hype is the discrepancy between the real value of something and the perceived value of that same thing.
When we say something was “hyped” or “overhyped,” we mean it was dramatized — made more exciting than it naturally is — or made more important based on questionable evidence. Cars have been hyped, weddings, athletic contests.
So was Hurricane Irene hyped?
Howard Kurtz and Jeff Jarvis say it was, while Anthony De Rosa, Rachel Sklar, Staci Kramer and others disagreed on Twitter Sunday. The disagreement centered on the relative value of information about the storm. But that question begs a deeper one: To whom is this information valuable? The answer has serious implications for journalism as mass media becomes more fragmented and hyperlocalized.
Weather is intensely local. A new inlet cut in the Outer Banks may matter tremendously to residents, a bit less to frequent visitors, and still less to ex-pats like me who imagine the island untouched in our minds, as we left it. Still, I’m a bit obsessive about Cape Hatteras news. But my hypervigilance becomes hype only when I impose it on you, especially if my interest seems overblown or manufactured.
Will remembrances of 9/11 be considered hype? The threshold will be higher, because we have a collective experience and appreciation for the ways those events changed us. And we have a collective need to continue examining its place in our life. So mass media serves its purpose — to connect us to each other and to inform in proportion to our need.
Fewer events than ever require mass media attention, though. And the more we communicate inside communities of interest — whether partisan or pop cultural or parenting — the more fragmented our media world becomes and the more your news looks like hype to me.
Though hype is, in part, the difference between individual and collective judgment, hype does not always need to be subjective or solitary. Here are some objective criteria for determining whether news is hype, disproportionate to its relative impact.
- Amount of coverage: How much time and space is this news occupying?
- Dominance of coverage: Is this news taking over a platform (website, newscast, front page) and/or dominating several platforms?
- Prominence of coverage: How prominent is this news? Is it leading a newscast, on the front page?
- Type of coverage: Is the news trivial or vital? Are respected newsmakers acting as if it’s vital? Is the event unexpected, rare?
- Tone of coverage: How urgent is the message, how intense the delivery? Are the graphics and images conveying crisis?
- Context of coverage: What else could or should be receiving our attention instead?
These criteria explain why journalists are rightly accused of hyping the disappearances or murders of young, white females and ignoring the disappearances of young, black females. The context of coverage, in particular, points toward hype: We pay unequal attention to girls in peril, depending on their race.
In the case of hurricane coverage, The New York Times’ Nate Silver researched past storms and reports that Irene received the 10th most media coverage among Atlantic hurricanes since 1980, about the same amounts as Gustav and Isabel, though Irene may have done more damage. I would argue that the perception of hype, in this case, does not match the reality.
This disparity happens sometimes in hindsight, if the actual impact of information is less than the expected impact. And it can reflect a bias, too, against some forms of journalism. In this case, it’s too easy to bash broadcast for standing reporters in the surf to show viewers whether it’s rising or receding. It’s more difficult to identify a specific segment that seemed excessive. That’s because hype is cumulative, the effect of constant commentary.
In fact, repetition can trivialize news, making once-extraordinary images (like a flooded New Orleans after Katrina) seem almost ordinary. When events become normalized, it eliminates scale and perspective, which can comfort us but also desensitize us.
The perception of hype is fed by the gap between supply and demand. For example, earlier this summer 37 percent of Americans said the Casey Anthony verdict was their top story of the week; coverage of it occupied 17% of the newshole. For some people I know, that was 16% too much, making it seem like news organizations were hyping the sensational story. This disconnect between interest and information presents a real problem for journalism, along with a changing media ecosystem that offers consumers more viable choices.
Journalists must make more closely calibrated decisions than ever about what information to provide.
The value of information — real and perceived — varies by place and time. What’s important to know in Hoboken, N.J., may not be important in Huntington Beach, Calif. What was important to know yesterday may not be important to know today. What parents need to know about a recalled crib is irrelevant to a twentysomething single. And the farm report could be critical in Iowa and casual in Seattle.
This has always been true, but we’re seeing the tension increasingly as information spreads not from one to many but from many to many.
In this environment especially, the opposite of hype is proportionality, and that is a public service.