Did the media overhype Irene?

Here was my prediction for Tropical Inconvenience Irene: a half-inch of rain and 20 mph winds. As it turned out, I wasn’t that far off, at least for those of us who live on the North Shore.

But does it necessarily follow that the media overhyped what turned out to be the Storm of the Week? At the Daily Beast, Howard Kurtz excoriates cable news, writing that “the tsunami of hype on this story was relentless, a Category 5 performance that was driven in large measure by ratings.”

Kurtz’s point is that the storm got the coverage that it did mainly because it was heading toward New York City, and it’s hard to disagree. But Irene has caused tremendous damage in the South, and flooding could be heavy in western Massachusetts and southern Vermont later today.

What I’d like to know is whether there is reason to believe Irene was overhyped from the beginning — or if this was a legitimate potential disaster that just happened to fizzle out.

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20 thoughts on “Did the media overhype Irene?

  1. Stephen Stein

    I guess it depends on where you sit.

    Thursday I was sitting in Cape May, NJ. There was a lot of storm hype there – I was listening to local news, and Philly news, not national (or Boston). They told us to get out by Friday 8 AM and we did. I think that was a good call.

    If you’re up here, I guess it was hyped. Certainly it’s better here (so far) than in New Jersey and NYC. Stories of closures tomorrow (Bedford NH schools closed?) seem strange – if the power is on, tomorrow is going to be a beautiful day here.

    I think Kurtz’s point is well-taken. This may be the biggest storm to hit NYC in a while, and that’s going to get hyped. I think the locals here overdid it, though.

  2. Mark Garfinkel

    This storm is still not finished. We still don’t know the impact that 5″-7″ of rain will have in regards to flash floods in some Massachusetts’ areas, nor do we know the “tale of the tape” in NYC. Twitter is broadcasting a 4yr old girl dead and a NJ firefighter, who was trying to make a rescue, is also dead. I think the warnings that were advised by seasoned meteorologists were right on, that is, have some food and candles and batteries, etc. because of the strong possibility that any power outage might last a day or two. Also, don’t take crazy chances trying to view the storm surge at the coast. Now, if you’re writing about hype from the non-meterological on-air “talent” at some of the 24hr cable news shows, then that’s a different story.

  3. Jef Nickerson

    That, “oh, they hyped it because it is New York,” argument is pretty weak. They “hyped” it because it was going to (and did) affect 50+ million people. Was the coverage anymore than the coverage for Katrina?

  4. Bill Schweber

    Overhyping weather is standard practice at all news media outlets–whether it is hot, cold, dry, wet, snow, whatever. It’s a way to drive ratings and get you to keep watching.

    They could run last year’s clips as “local angle” filler and no one would notice, so much of the coverage is both entirely predictable and has so little actual news value.

    One of our local TV channels–maybe it is Channel 5, not sure–no longer even calls it a “weather center” or “weather desk”. Why not? Because that’s too dull–it is now called the Storm Center, even when the weather is dead calm or perfect. Just an example of hype-centric relabeling.

  5. Paul Rickter

    Clearly, the challenge for any aspiring hurricane wishing to hit New England is the Outer Banks/Eastern Coastal Plain area of North Carolina. Irene lost a lot of its power by passing over that piece of land, but if it had gone further to the east, it would have retained a lot of its power but likely spun out to sea, as many hurricanes have in the past. It’s very rare that a hurricane threads that needle — the 1938 hurricane did. One day, another hurricane will again, even though Irene didn’t. It’s probably best to encourage people to prepare for the worst case scenario — though there is a danger of crying wolf.

  6. Martin Callaghan

    It appears that despite all we know about the weather, there is much we do not know.

    With a Cat. 5 hurricane coming up the coast and the potential for extensive damage all along the heavily populated east coast, can you over-hype? Remember all those rainbow-like computer generated storm track predictions that changed daily? Let’s face it, in reality, no one knew where this storm was going or how strong it would be when it got there.

    My view: This was a legitimate potential disaster that just happened to fizzle out.

  7. George F. Snell III

    The media has been over-hyping weather for more than a decade. It is how they cover significant storms: blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. Even when they are bad – they are covered beyond the capacity of the actually unfolding news.

  8. Ted McEnroe

    Well, it didn’t end the world, but there are something like 1.8 million New Englanders without power as we speak, for a storm that didn’t end up holding together as people thought it might. There are rivers in western Mass. that are over their banks and expectation that a number of rivers will have historic crests.

    You may not feel it in greater Boston as much, with a lot of outages but not much else, but I have a feeling there are a lot of people who would be happy to trade places with Bostonians.

  9. Michael Pahre

    Wow, you were totally off for rainfall amounts here in Boston: we got well over an inch in less than an hour just on Saturday afternoon.

  10. Tony Schinella

    I have been through six or seven hurricanes at this point, most of them in South Florida during the 1970s and 1980s, when I would spend summers there with my father. Most were tame; some were horrific.
    We didn’t have a television so we didn’t experience the news hype if there was any. We used to track the storms all summer long on printed maps that we would get free at Winn Dixie. We would get the coordinates from the Coast Guard or one year, the Bahamian broadcasts, on CB, not unlike the weather radar maps online, and track the storms with a strange mixture of fear and excitement, not unlike being in the news business actually.
    It was not a mistake to “hype” this up. The fact of the matter is that had this storm not lost half of its power when it did, it could have been destructive beyond belief. A major hurricane plowing into Manhattan would have made 9-11 look like a pattycake session. Hurricane Andrew in 1992, granted a Category 5, very rare, cleared parts of Miami like an atomic bomb. I don’t think people realized exactly what we missed by nature doing its thing.
    Better to be safe than sorry, with the most up-to-the-minute information as possible, and then, be thankful that there wasn’t much of a storm after all.

  11. Mike Benedict

    Nate Silver just tweeted that his research (which he’ll be writing up later) shows Irene received only the 13th most media coverage among Atlantic hurricanes since 1980.

  12. Mark DiSalvo

    I don’t believe it was over-hyped as much as it missed the mark. As a New York City resident now, I found it extremely difficult to find updates on where the storm actually was, when I could expect it to hit me, and a projected path. Instead, I found New York Times blogs and human interest pieces about diners braving the storm in Brooklyn. A great read, but not what I was interested in with the storm on top of me.

    Yes, there were Flash-animated maps of the storm moving up the coast, but none on the New York Times, NY Daily News, CNN.com, Weather.com, or MSNBC.com actually gave any information more specific to when the storm was projected to hit actual towns/neighborhoods/boroughs. If it was there, it was not easily found.

    I found my apartment getting pummeled with rain and blasted by wind a few hours before I was told to expect it. Needless to say, I was looking for some answers.

    Maybe I am spoiled or expecting too much. When I lived in Memphis, there were charts updated every few seconds projecting what time a tornado was expected to hit a certain town/block. As the path of the tornado changed, their estimates updated accordingly in real time. I figured something as large as hurricane would be easier to predict and provide this type of coverage for.

  13. Jim Callahan

    Not overhyped when it was a Catagory 2. I think panic-in-the-streets bilge should have been throttled back once it appeared it was just a very nasty storm. That said, no one should be out during a nasty storm with trees and wires flying around. Do NOT appreciate Philadelphia TV calling for imminent destruction of Greater Philadelphia by tornadoes Saturday night as storm approached.

  14. C.E. Stead

    DK – it wasn’t overhyped, but it WAS oversaturated. We didn’t need to have 24/7 stories, some of them kitten-in-a-tree filler.

    I lost power early on Sunday afternoon and just got power back a few hours ago, but that was because the power lines on Rt. 6A caught on fire, not wind damage per se, so the power had been shut off until the wind stopped and repairs could be made. And there were some VERY impressive winds, steady from @ 11 am to 10 pm yesterday.

    Ever since they got the damned Doppler radar and COULD say what was happening minute to minute, weather in general has taken over newscasts. It was a GREAT tool during the recent hurricane, but weather has cannibalized the half-hour news broadcast, to the detriment of news overall. For example, did you know the gambling bill was reported out of committee on Aug. 29, making it eligible for a vote?

    We have become as desensitized to weather by all the predicitons that cried ‘wolf’, and didn’t listen to this bona fide emergency.

  15. Mike Saunders

    Mark,

    Yes…you are expecting too much. The storm spread for hundreds of miles, with effects that were as varied as just a few inches of rain to 14 inches of rain. There’s no way for meteorologists to say, “Park Slope is going to get X inches of rain and X mph winds, but Hoboken will get X+1 inches.”

    And ALL of the good sources of weather info — nws.noaa.gov, stormpulse.com — had very accurate tracking data. Individual storm cells that spawn tornadoes can be very easily tracked on radar because they’re so small and have a distinct signature. With a hurricane, you’re potentially looking at hundreds of those kinds of cells.

  16. Chris Devers

    As noted above, Nate Silver seemed to think it was about right:

    Do hurricanes receive too much media coverage? Are they more or less newsworthy than airplane crashes? The avian flu? The iPhone 5? Shark attacks? The Dominique Strauss-Kahn case? The Libyan civil war? The royal wedding? Global warming? Anthony Weiner? The Dallas Cowboys?

    I don’t know. What’s easier to evaluate is how much coverage Hurricane Irene received in comparison with other hurricanes. By that standard, the coverage was quite proportionate to the amount of death and destruction that the storm caused.

    And then he goes on, in typically copious fashion, to explain his reasoning there.

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