Weather or not to panic

Getting great TV moments about the weather also means you have to fill a lot of time—with panic


There are two separate issues about coverage of Hurricane Irene. One is the tone of the coverage on the 24-hour news channels. I was watching a lot of CNN, and they lived up to every stereotype of the news network during a potential crisis, trying to tell you the people you love are in terrible danger. This is part of the nature of “ongoing” coverage of weather, of course. A weather disaster combines all the things TV news is good at: it’s live, it is experienced somewhat differently by every correspondent and looks somewhat different everywhere you cut. It’s a serious story that we viewers recognize as being relevant to our lives. So bad weather creates great TV moments, both dark (footage of terrible things happening) and light (footage of reporters caught in wind and rain). But to get to those moments, you have to fill a lot of time, and that time is filled with panic.

The other issue, though, is whether the over-wrought coverage is evidence that there was genuine over-reaction to the hurricane, or that it was being hyped into a bigger story than it really was. This is what Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast is arguing. But as Kurtz himself says, Irene was a big deal, and did a lot of real damage. And there was a very real chance that it was going to be even worse; the fact that the reporters were repeating this fact over and over doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The tone of the coverage may have been over-the-top, but in substance, it was a response to a real threat.

Kurtz ends his piece by saying “don’t expect the cable networks to downgrade their coverage the next time a tropical storm gathers strength,” but I’m not sure I see how they could have “downgraded” their coverage in this case; until the very moment Irene was downgraded, there were a number of possibilities, and the worst-case scenarios were real possibilities. Holding back on coverage because it might turn out to be not so bad is not only bad TV, it’s very un-helpful. TV is not good at moderation. When a TV news channel decides to report on things in a dry, under-hyped sort of way, the effect is often to make it sound like it’s not going to be that bad. And with weather, that’s a problem. Because it might be that bad.

What I guess I’m saying is that it’s easy to make fun of the tone and style of the cable news networks, the “weather porn” as it’s called. But breathless reporting on Irene is not like Kent Brockman trying to manufacture a story about a deadly blizzard.


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Weather or not to panic

  1. Panic solves nothing even if yo are faced with a “killer” storm. You do what you can to secure yourselves and your stuff, hunker down and tidy up if you come through it. Panic just reduces the odds of coming through it.
    But it does make great TV and is great to keep the population in a permanent mode of fear making them easier to manipulate.

  2. Panic is only useful for survival when the rational response is to give up and die.

    When all else fails, panic!

  3. It wasn’t the fact of the coverage on the 24 hour news networks that bothered me – I get it, they need to assume the worst-case scenario so that people will take the threat seriously (although thousands didn’t, that ‘evacuation’ of the Jersey shore was a joke) – it was how desperate they all were to make it into a disaster of the century story even after it became clear that it wasn’t. Why not “wow, that was a close one, thank goodness the damage wasn’t even worse”?

    But what really riled me up was the coverage on our local news here in Halifax.

    Hurricane Irene was never forecast to make landfall in the Maritimes – no computer model showed it touching our eastern coast at any point. And yet… our local news (CBC in particular) spent a breathless week giving us updates every half hour, telling us to stock up on batteries / bottled water / etc. (good practice anyway, our power utility is notoriously unreliable)… our provincial emergency measures organization even made a statement telling everyone to have three days’ worth of clothing & blankets on hand. This was on Thursday, when it was very evident that it was not going to be an out-of-the-ordinary storm. Local coverage was very much like that Simpsons clip – the only reason there wasn’t a death-toll counter is budget cuts.

    Back in 2003, Hurricane Juan made landfall in Halifax and the damage was widespread. People died, the power was off for close to two weeks in some spots, and cleanup of fallen trees is *still* going on. That time, the forecasters missed it, and there wasn’t much warning at all until late the night before. Gov’t & media were judged so harshly that now there is a massive overreaction every time there is a storm – for example, the front page of our local paper today has a story about Tropical Storm Katia, which is still south of the Cape Verde Islands but PANIC PANIC DANGER WILL ROBINSON!! The risk here of course is that if every single storm is a potential apocalypse in the making, then none of them are serious. And by the time another legitimate threat happens, everyone will have stopped paying attention to the constant din and we’ll get caught with our pants down again.

  4. You absolutely cannot talk about “weather porn” without mentioning Jim Kosek. But ironically, his coverage of Irene was quite subdued compared to his usual insanity.

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