Hyping Hurricane Irene: Tuesday Update

By Alex Weprin Comment

A few more people have weighed in on whether the coverage leading up to Hurricane Irene’s landfall was “overhyped” or not.

FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver does what he does best, taking an analytical approach to argue that Irene received a proper amount of coverage when compared to other hurricanes to make landfall in the U.S. That said, Silver wrote that he does agree with some of the critiques of tone:

There are some things in Mr. Kurtz’s article that I agree with. Certainly the tone and tenor of media coverage could be improved when it comes to hurricanes and other types of disasters. In particular, as you might expect, I think the coverage could stand to be a quite a bit more data-driven and less narrative-driven (if you can call it “narrative” to have some television correspondent mugging for the camera in his Windbreaker from the middle of a storm zone).

Data-driven, among other things, would imply informing the public when the prognosis had gotten better — as it did, for instance, on Friday afternoon, when it became apparent that Irene was failing to add much strength over the open ocean, and was unlikely to hit the Carolinas as more than a strong Category 1 storm or the Northeast as more than a weak Category 1. On the other hand, wind speeds don’t tell the whole story about a hurricane.

Elsewhere, Time‘s James Poniewozik–who is quick to note that he was out of the country, and thus not able to watch all of the coverage unfold live–takes a similar approach, taking issue not with the amount of coverage, but with what that coverage entailed:

I’ve heard the defense that Irene was, after all, a deadly storm, and that the media had a responsibility to make sure that people didn’t dismiss it. That’s a very good point—if you’re running a city or state government trying to batten down and hold evacuations. If you’re in charge of public safety and disaster planning, you have an obligation to err on the side of the worst possibility. But if you’re covering a storm, you have an obligation to err on the side of reporting what is actually happening—or, as important, not happening—not to cherrypick the visuals that make for the best TV.

Poniewozik also notes that TV was hardly alone in hype, and that the worst-case news seemed to travel farther and faster on social networks than the more toned-down but ultimately accurate reportage.