By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Did the media overhype Irene? (II)

In retrospect, the biggest problem with Howard Kurtz’s rant about the media’s overhyping Irene was that he was way too early. When I linked to him on Sunday afternoon, the storm clearly seemed to have fizzled — and the main question at the time was whether the media should have been more restrained, or if we were dealing with a genuinely threatening situation that just happened not to pan out. Then came the floods.

Yesterday, New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter and I appeared on “The Emily Rooney Show” on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) to discuss whether the media were guilty of overkill. Essentially we were in agreement: the non-stop coverage was too much and often silly; the fact that Irene veered away from Washington and New York City initially made it seem like the storm had been oversold; but given the devastation in Vermont, Upstate New York, Western Massachusetts and parts of New Hampshire, it turned out that the storm hadn’t be overhyped at all. (It was a great kick to share the stage for a moment with Stelter, whom I hugely admire. Here is his Monday story on the Weather Channel.)

The last word goes to Charles Apple (via Martin Langeveld), who mocks the hype theory with images of the reality on the ground. Irene was a major storm that will affect the region for months to come. It was, in some respects, every bit as bad as the predictions — just different.

Video above is from Brattleboro Community Television.

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A North Shore view of Irene


The French King Bridge


  1. The meteorologists, like I wrote in an earlier post, were right on with warnings of long term power outages etc. That is responsible science and journalism. What seems to have been ramped up in the last several years, is on air television reporters, donning hip boots, hopping into the path of storm surge waves and local flash flooding. On the one hand they are reporting that emergency officials suggest to stay away from the dangerous storm surge waters, and on the other hand they themselves are wading in the water. It’s crazy and irresponsible.

  2. John Geoghegan

    This wasn’t overhyped; the amount of damage where I live (Cumberland, RI) has been great. I’ve had no power for two-plus days, and a lot of local businesses have not re-opened, which adds to the problems caused by spoiled goods. As has been noted, other areas have been affected far worse. That’s the very definition of proper attention and coverage.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    I should add that to call the storm nothing but hype on Sunday was premature. To say that today is just moronic. Michael Graham, come on down.

  4. Reggie Giguere

    Did the media overhype Irene? Yes AND No.

    Yes: It did dedicate far too many broadcast hours to tedious & redundant reports that-for this viewer anyway- grew very tiring & weary. A weather “update” should be just that. It should advance the story. If it doesn’t, then why bother? Do that repeatedly and people will begin to simply ignore it or, worse yet, turn it off. After all, it is one definition of insanity, isn’t it? Doing the same thing over & over again and expecting a different outcome? Or perhaps more appropriately, the little boy who cried wolf?

    No: The media did not overhype the strength or fierceness &/or power of Hurricane Irene. Nor did local goverment officials with their calls for evacuations, shut downs & etc.. One ounce of prevention IS worth a pound of cure. Did the weather people “call it wrong” when Irene reached NYC? Perhaps just a bit. However, if there is anyone out there who can predict with 100% accuracy what Mother Nature’s fury will do from one minute to another, please step forward!

    Determining what Mother Nature will do next is like high stakes poker. Knowing when to hold & when to fold is difficult; even for the best of players. However, one cardinal rule remains the same: The really great players never come to the table counting what they’re going to win. Oh no. They come to the table knowing how much they can afford to loose.

    The actual forecasting of the storm-by our weather professionals-was very accurate AND timely. It’s 75% of the static & noise surrounding it that needed to be removed. A WCVB Channel 5 on line poll last week asked one question: “Would you know what to do in the event of a hurricane?” When I took that poll, the results stated that 42% did NOT know what to do and 10% were unsure. Maybe some Hurricane 101 lessons would be a great place to start.

  5. Dan Hamilton

    It all depends which yardstick you hold up to the event and the coverage. If you measure overall effects of the storm and the =amount= of coverage it got, that’s a decent match, as many have said.

    But if you use a measuring device calibrated in tone, from a low of falsely upbeat, on up through responsible concern, to hysterical overkill, then legitimate failings of the media come into sharp focus.

    I had to turn off The Whether Channel (as in “full-time hysteria Whether anything is really happening or not”) and I fear its hype will contribute to more problems with skeptical citizens come the next storm.

  6. C.E. Stead

    DK – your video is Exhibit A of where coverage went wrong. It’s from community television, not a usual media outlet.

    We had a dozen reporters on Cape, covering what turned out to be a Bob-like storm – little damage except for trees, almost no rain, and a lot of people kvetching about electricity loss, seasoned with a strong suspicion that New Bedford is hogging the utility trucks.

    Anybody in North Adams?

    Even when the storm went west, it didn’t seem like there was any effort to go whre the story WAS, rather than fabricating an ‘update’ on a static situation.

    There’s a ‘tree-falls-in-the-forest’ quality to this – without cell phones, Flips, and YouTube, would there ever have been coverage of the really awful flooding in an obscure place like Vermont?

  7. Aaron Read

    Being 3000 miles away from my hometown (in coastal Connecticut) is giving me a detached perspective. Perhaps TOO detached, but I’ll let ya’ll judge that.

    I think the storm was massively overhyped where it didn’t matter and underhyped where it did. I can’t speak to local media in Vermont and the Hudson River Valley, but I never heard any national coverage saying: “Even if this is just a tropical storm, it’s gonna dump a ton of rain into areas with tall hills and steep valleys with rivers at the bottom, that have poor access routes in & out of them, and there are a lot of towns along those rivers that’re likely to get badly flooded.”

    Of course, perhaps I missed something on the national coverage? And as I said, I don’t have access to the local media.

    However, don’t say this couldn’t have anticipated: the “surprise” floods of Melrose and Taunton, MA a few years ago…and the pretty serious floods in the Finger Lakes of NY earlier this year…were the wake-up call that everyone and anyone CAN live in a flood zone, even if you’re nowhere near the coast. I don’t recall hearing any warnings that referenced those…?

  8. Mike Rice

    Michael Graham, here’s your sign.

  9. Laurence Glavin

    Hmmm…just as you have to get ready for Halloween right after back-to-school, get ready for hurricane-to-be Katia, already in mid-Atlantic over warm waters. Hey, did someone say “warmer than usual”? How can that be?

  10. tobe berkovitz

    Where’s Shelby Scott when we need her. By the way, as of 3pm Tuesday, we still do not have power on our road.

  11. I think whether most people believe the storm was hyped to death or not depends upon where they were and how much it affected them personally.

    Living in (ironically, in this instance) Watertown, and being fairly much unaffected more than any really bad thunderstorm might have affected us, I felt as though the reporting was hideously overdone. It seemed to me that we were getting the same old Chicken Little reporting we have been used to getting for the past few years concerning weather.

    Obviously, in retrospect, and hearing from other communities more adversely affected, it wasn’t as over-the-top as I originally thought. Still, as many here have said, updates would have been enough for most. Wall-to-wall coverage was too much. Regular programming, with occasional break-ins and maybe a continuous crawl, would have sufficed, IMHO, for the television end of things.

  12. BJ Roche

    Ha, Tobe, I missed Shelby, too!

    We got wacked here in Franklin County in WEMA, and I was both amused and bemused to find the best footage on Sunday afternoon not on tv, but on my Facebook page, where people were posting videos of the flooding in Brattleboro and Shelburne Falls. Channel 40 was broadcasting some Little League Championship.

  13. Mike Benedict

    At least 40 persons are dead. I’d say that qualifies as an unquestionable disaster, no matter the level of hype.

  14. Bob Keough

    Charges of over-hyping are ridiculous and cynical – a debased form of second-guessing (even the Herald agrees in an editorial!). But Stelter’s excellent NYT piece is about something different – dramatization of natural disaster, and this is something the Weather Channel has elevated to an art form and propagated to local news channels. Not sure it adds to understanding, but surely adds to hype.

  15. Al Fiantaca

    Whether you feel coverage was right on or overhyped depends on which station you were watching and where you live. If you live in one of those areas hit with major damage, then the facts lived up to the hype. For those of us in Greater Boston, we escaped serious problems and see the coverage as overblown. Was Irene a serious storm? Yes. Did it cause major damage and sadly, loss of lives? Yes, again. Still, TV reported it as if they didn’t want to miss out on the competition.

    I don’t have any problem with the strict facts that were reported, but I do with foolish babbling about big waves, with the constant, all encompassing team coverage filling airtime, but doing little more than repeating the same non information just because…. because they had time to fill, because they felt they had to say something but didn’t know what to say. As Sgt Joe Friday used to say “Just the facts ma’am” is really all that’s needed. Everything else is the competitive business of commercial news reporting, nothing else.

    One last thing I thought of is how much we are watching TV during events like this. The result is we are exposed to the constant repetition and gimmicks the media used to try and distinguish their product from all others. Perhaps if we didn’t have it on as much we wouldn’t be as sensitive to it.

  16. Al Fiantaca

    In a play on the old Paul Simon song, Myth Romney is “Flip, Floppin’ Away”. What escapes me is how shamelessly he can flip his positions, supposed statements of his core beliefs, in the quest for votes from the latest bloc he feels the need to curry favor from. I would rather see him win or lose with dignity, than this. BTW, I didn’t vote for him against Kennedy, didn’t vote for him for Governor, and, well, don’t vote in Republican primaries, so if he wins the nomination, won’t be voting for him then, either.

  17. Aaron Read

    @Mike: Actually, no, it doesn’t. Over 100 die EVERY DAY in traffic accidents in the US.

    40 deaths spread over a week from a hurricane is tragic, but it’s not a “disaster” in and of itself.

  18. On Aug. 29, I attended a press conference with Gov. John Lynch and a slew of state officials to talk about the aftermath of Irene, what the state was doing, etc.
    After some of the usual types of questions, I asked for some public policy perspective about what could be done in the future to move the state’s utility delivery system from 19th Century technology to the 21st Century. It seems like a couple of times a year, there are millions of dollars lost in materials, food, insurance, livelihood and productivity time, etc., because we’re using poles and wires. I mean, a half inch ice storm or a few inches of rain can knock out power and the Internet for thousands of people up here, for days on end.
    After hesitating for a second or two, to giggles from the other members of the press, the chairman of the Public Utility Commission stated that he didn’t think it was fair to call it 19th Century technology, that some advances had been made, that New Hampshire had a lot of trees, so there isn’t much we can do, etc.
    However, I’m still puzzled that our utilities and the officials that regulate them are not pressing these companies to make the necessary investments in the future to fix this problem once and for all. I don’t know what that is exactly – maybe focusing on moving to underground cables in the smaller cities like we see in large metropolitan areas – or something else – which would allow utility companies to not have to worry about us when power goes out and instead, put more resources on fixing the remote areas more quickly. However, it would seem that the time is now to move forward.

  19. Mike Rice

    At one point in WBZ’s storm newscast, newscaster Sera Congi was standing on a seawall in South Yarmouth next to a small cottage which is part of the Red Jacket Resort. Somewhat of a big deal was made on the roof shingles being blown off. During Hurricane Bob the tidal surge blew out the sliding glass doors of this same cottage, the refrigerator and the living room furniture ended up in the back bedrooms. A total rehab of this unit ensued.

    Thankfully, Tropical Storm Irene inflicted only minor damage upon this resort. I’ve worked as a sub-contractor for this hotel chain for decades.

  20. Victor DeRubeis

    Matt Noyes of NECN had some remarkably incisive comments about this whole matter:

  21. Mike Benedict

    @Aaron: You’re confusing the results of a singular event with those of an activity that takes place a few billion times a day.

    Statistically, you’re all messed up.

  22. Aaron Read

    @Tony: there was a guy on NPR talking about the poles-vs-burying argument recently. The problem is that it costs a bloody fortune to bury power lines…the number quoted was a million dollars per mile. Obviously that’s a rough number; local conditions will cause that number to vary significantly, but it’s still – on average – about eight to ten times more expensive to bury than to use poles.

    A major problem with burying is actually heat. All electrical wires have some loss associated with them, and that lost electricity is inherently coverted to heat. On poles, that’s not really a problem. But underground, it can be VERY problematic to disperse that heat safely. Especially if you’re talking isolated areas where there’s not really an underground sewer pipe or anything; just a small, narrow conduit. There’s also a host of other problems, including flooding. And it doesn’t take much water to potentially flood an underground conduit…in the wrong conditions, just a hour of heavy rain can do it.

    Granted, these problems can be offset by the benefits that burying brings. Namely a much greater resistance to power outages during severe weather (heavy wind/rain and/or heavy snow/ice) but historically those events are relatively uncommon, and thus the ROI of the much-more-expensive burying is hard to justify. With climate change bringing more extreme weather, that ROI might start to shift, though.

  23. Aaron Read

    @Mike: I’m perfectly happy to be proven wrong on this point, but so far I don’t think I’m messed up. I don’t think it really matters that you’re talking a singular event vs. a commonplace one: a death is a death, and a death is tragic. But to assign the description of “disaster” to a comparatively low number of deaths…especially when many more are dying from a far more prosaic cause…seems to cheapen the term. It’s like how the word “hero” is being used an awful lot for people who really aren’t “heroes”.

    If 40 people dying is a “disaster”, what does that make the Galveston Hurricane of 1900? An estimated 6000 to 12,000 people died. Calling that a “disaster” as well rather seems to diminish things, doesn’t it?

    However, I’m speaking from an uninformed position here. Is there a more formal journalistic standard about what makes a “disaster”? How high does the death toll need to be? Is there a real standard at all, or is it a “you know it when you see it” sort of thing?

  24. Mike Benedict

    @Aaron: I’m speaking from a statistical POV. (I’m sure you’re well aware from past rants that I don’t think much of the mass media’s outright disdain for math.) To compare hurricane to hurricane seems appropriate. To compare hurricane to car accidents does not. The mode contains no common denominator. (It’s the same fallacy the gun nuts use, btw.)

    The reference to Galveston is a straw man. Because many more people died in the wars around Darfur over the past decade doesn’t somehow diminish the deadliness of Korean War, I’m sure you’d agree.

    Irene was the 3d or 4th deadliest Atlantic Hurricane in the past century, and the seventh or eighth most costly. That says disaster to me.

  25. Al Fiantaca

    I heard the same report about the buried vs above ground wiring issues. As far as I know, new subdivisions get them buried since everything is exposed at that time, but that the cost to do things retroactively to existing utility installations is prohibitive. My guess is the heat issue while real, is being used as an excuse, and the cost is the real problem. Not too many years ago, I remember hearing about a town or city nearby that was making an effort to bury existing wires, but I don’t know any more than that.

  26. Aaron Read

    @Al: It’s not an excuse per se, it’s that dealing with waste heat (and a variety of other factors) are part of what makes burying power lines such an expensive proposition.

    @Mike: The reference to Galveston is a straw man. Because many more people died in the wars around Darfur over the past decade doesn’t somehow diminish the deadliness of Korean War, I’m sure you’d agree.

    I think you’ve just touched on something: I feel more and more that there should be a threshold effect here. Yes Darfur has claimed far more lives than Korea, but most people would consider both to be “disasters” in terms of lives lost. That’s because both had high death tolls (est. over 3mil total deaths in Korea, est. over 400,000 in Darfur). Numbers that “boggle the mind”, so to speak.

    Now I’m wondering: what is that threshold? Within the world of journalism, how many people have to die/be killed within a singular event for it to truly be considered a “disaster”? It’s a seemingly callous question, but nevertheless I think it’s a valid one.

  27. Bob Nelson

    Vermont got hit very hard, and a Globe article praises WDEV AM and FM in Waterbury for their info and service to the community.(I would think Vt. Public Radio may have also been a big help.) WDEV’s studios had flooding and power problems (fortunately they had a backup generator) and many Green Mt. State residents were able to tune in for important info. I’ll pat myself on the back a bit too, as I was on WMWM at Salem State on Sunday and was able to pass along info including a live report from Bill Newell formerly of WESX. Live and local for the North Shore…

    But yes if you check out what happened in VT it may not have been over-hyped at all.

    BTW the Little League Championship was on both ABC and ESPN. Ch 5 Boston and its sister station Ch 9 in Manchester NH did live and local hurricane/trop. storm coverage instead. Bravo!

  28. Mike Rice

    Weather forecasters are now tiptoeing around the possibility of T.S. Katia heading this way. Say it ain’t so.

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