New York City Media’s Hurricane Overkill

By last Friday, New York City was in full-on hurricane panic mode. Public transportation was scheduled for a Saturday shut down, stores were selling out of batteries and flashlights, windows were being taped, sandbags stacked; three-hundred and seventy thousand people were evacuated. This was going to be bad, the local media kept telling us. Really, really bad. Even the number-crunching, data-driven Nate Silver got in on the action, posting an extensive piece on his fivethirtyeight blog that if Hurricane Irene got close enough to New York City, it could be the costliest natural disaster ever. And by Friday, it was heading straight for the Big Apple.

By midnight on Saturday, things (in the words of NBC anchor Brian Williams) were “getting a bit sporty” in NYC. Wind was gusting, rain was coming sideways. The streets were empty, save for dozens of intrepid local TV news reporters deployed throughout the city, standing ready to report on the impending damage. Which, remember, was going to be bad.

The center of Irene hit New York around 9am Sunday. Winds reached 65 mph, the strongest in 25 years. By 10 am, the worst was over. No hurricane-shattered skyscraper windows, no preemptive power outages, no real flooding to speak of. The general tone among New Yorkers Sunday morning was, “That’s it?” But to watch the local TV news on Sunday, the storm had been epic. Rather than call in their battalion of reporters stationed around the area, the NYC TV news media kept reporting. All day.

By noon, it seemed they had the story covered. There was flooding in some areas. Parts of New Jersey and Connecticut were without power. There were a few inches of standing water in lower Manhattan. (A friend who lives down there wrote that he’d just walked from Battery Park to South Street Seaport, and the only thing he’d seen was a dead rat.) And yet, the media kept reporting as if the damage was catastrophic. All three New York City network affiliates preempted their scheduled programming to bring all-day coverage of the storm’s aftermath. By mid-afternoon, reporters had resorted to pointing out sticks and trash in storm drains as evidence of debris. They didn’t stop until they broke for national news at 6:30. This struck me as absurd. Almost as absurd as Al Roker tethering himself to a bench on a pier in Long Island.

 

Sadly, parts of the country were devastated by Hurricane Irene. Coastal North Carolina was ravaged. There’s historic flooding going on in much of New England. Some 3 million people are without power on the East Coast. Total damage nationwide is estimated to be about $10 billion, nowhere near what people had feared, and hardly any of it in NYC. After all the flak he took about not being prepared for the blizzard last winter, Mayor Michael Bloomberg rightly erred on the side of caution this time. Better safe than sorry.

But here’s where I blame the media. Rather than admitting on Sunday that the storm had simply not been so bad, the New York City media was way too eager to join in on the fray, don its rain jacket, and get its disaster yahs-yahs out. While there is clearly a danger in under-estimating the risk of events, there are also negative consequences in trumping up the damages of an event that ultimately, wasn’t all that damaging. To me, Sunday’s all-day reporting blitz was classic overkill, and ultimately undermines the local TV media’s credibility to be able to tell me when something matters, and when it doesn’t.

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COMMENTS: 28


  1. BSK says:

    At one point, one of the channels (I think Fox5) interviewed a guy who had refused to evacuate Battery Park City. He was out for a walk at the time. During the conversation, he said that he was a bit disappointed it wasn’t worse, because he was sort of excited at seeing what happened. The interviewer quickly jumped in and said, “Oh, it’s going to get worse!” He replied, “Probably not. The worst is over and the storm is moving on.” “NO! It’s going to get worse!” He just sort of shrugged and the interview ended. The interviewer couldn’t stand to be shown up in that way. Truly hilarious if it wasn’t such an impressive indictment of our current news media.

    I’d also argue that there are tangible consequences to overstating the damage. Suppose you were an evacuee who was relying on the news for information about whether it was safe to return. If you are hearing that the sea walls are breached and lower Manhattan is flooding, you are probably going to take a very different approach than if you saw the pictures that showed some water splashing onto the nearest walkways but never more than a few inches deep. In the lead up to the storm, there was legitimate reason to believe and report on the worst-case-scenario. But once it was apparent that that wasn’t going to be realized, they should have done what they are supposed to do: report what is happening, not what they wish was happening.

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    • Jason says:

      There was something similar in Battery Park City where people were letting their dogs swim in the rather minor flood waters, and the media was all over them like they were a bunch of animal abusers. Seriously pathetic in every way.

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  2. Mike B says:

    When did it become the job of the for profit TV news industry to not make a profit? If you want fair and balanced try PBS.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 20 Thumb down 19
    • charlie says:

      Actually Mike, it WAS the job of any & ALL the major networks to present any news in the interest of the public, above the interests of share-holders & ratings until Ronald Reagan reversed that long-running legislation back in the 80′s.
      Yep, Ronny Reagan said it was legally OK for CEO’s (like Rupert Murdock) or Ted Turner (to CNN) to dictate what news should be.
      And Hurricane Irene was an interesting benchmark to how the media helped the Mayor create a State of Emergency where there was only a Chance of Emergency…

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      The TV stations are there to make money to to provide an accurate account of events. Isn’t this an economics website?

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      • Joshua Northey says:

        EDIT

        The TV stations are there to make money NOT to provide an accurate account of events. Isn’t this an economics website?

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  3. Ryan says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Topher says:

      uhh…yeah. Thats why the name of the story is “NEW YORK CITY MEDIA’S hurricane overkill”

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  4. Walter Wimberly says:

    Welcome to what we get in Florida all the time. Living here 35+ years, I’ve seen a few hurricanes, and while they can be devastating, they are usually well over blown by the media, government officials, and more.

    The worst part is after crying wolf many times, when a real storm hits, no one listens to media and government – and then real damage and loss of life occurs.

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  5. DS says:

    I feel like the local media was following the lead of local officials. Sure some individual reporters were a little bit over the top, but for the most part the moral of this storm is, better safe than sorry. The huge amounts of damage happening in upstate New York, the Connecticut coast and as far north as Vermont, are proof that this storm packed some really big potential. Articles like this are feeding the idea that this storm was overblown and that therefore next time, people shouldn’t trust their local news. While there were real tragedies out of this storm, like the 11-year-old boy killed in his house in Virginia, the majority of the deaths from Irene were probably people who went out when they had been advised not to by the local government or local media. Idiots abounded standing and joking behind news reporters in many areas that were in the path of the storm. Luckily for those people it wasn’t as bad as was predicted in their area, but again, New York City and the surrounding area is not the end all and be all of this storm.

    I am thankful that this wasn’t as bad as it could have been for NYC and for my area in Fairfield County, and I am keeping those who were much more afffected in my thoughts and prayers.

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  6. econobiker says:

    It could have been worse even in the downgraded weather had a bunch of civilian yahoos been driving and walking around along with cheap umbrella sellers still being out on the sidewalks. People were not hurt because they were not there.

    This also shows the NYC centric media bias. If you remember in May 2010, Nashville and Middle TN were hit by a really bad stalled storm (which killed about the same amount of people as all of Irene.) This storm flooded the heck out of the region yet the national news didn’t find need to cover the flooding until several days afterward- and this will CNN/Weather Channel just 5 hours away in Atlanta.

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  7. scot phelps says:

    I’m a disaster scientist who also happens to not own a tv, so I can really see how the relentless hype from the media changes behavior-a category one hurricane is a big deal if youre on a barrier island or in a low-lying area, if not, then falling trees and power failures are your main worry, and while annoying, isn’t generally life threatening unless the tree falls on you (I’m actually trapped at home by a fallen tree on my street, although I have power, water, food, and beer).

    But as an economist, you know that each social decision has a cost, in this case, hundreds of millions of tourism dollars lost (my week at a cabin on a lake in maine was canceled, even though it is 150 miles inland) as well as lost productivity. The subway, which takes about 1,000,000 people to work each day and two of the busiest commuter railroads in the country are still mostly offline.

    So while it is easy to say “better safe than sorry”, that is also an excuse for a blatantly political overreaction based on the complete failure of New York City government during last winter’s snowstorm, where our mayor was in Bermuda and New Jersey’s governor was in Disneyland.

    I’m wondering when they’ll get it right?

    Scot Phelps

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    • Matthew Philips says:

      Just wanted to reply and say thanks for the thoughtful comment Scot.

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    • DS says:

      As a “disaster scientist”, you seem to be missing a large point about this storm. You never mentioned flooding as one of the main worries. Wind speed (where the category measurement of a storm comes from) is only part of the equation. Rain and track speed (how long the rain and winds will stay over any given area) also have a large impact on areas in the path of a tropical cyclone. Look at what happened in NJ, Upstate, NY, and VT (where flood waters were still rising or just starting to recede).

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  8. Dave Brooks says:

    Maybe I’m just being a whiny newspaper reporter, but instead of complaining about “the media” with sweeping monolithic finality, couldn’t you say “some television stations” when that’s what you mean?

    After all, don’t you think it’s stupid when people blame “the Internet” because some bloggers were morons?

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  9. Tim says:

    This phenomenon is nothing new to those of us out in flyover country. Every major network morning news magazine (Today, GMA, et al) always exhibits a bias towards local issues, sometimes subtle, sometime not so much, like this weekend. To some extent, it can’t be helped: the producers, writers, and talking heads all LIVE in NYC after all, and they are bound to reflect their social, political, and economic milieu.

    Personally, I think it has quite a lot to do with the regional political polarization that has taken place in the US, and even the rise of the Tea Party. The general ethos that jumps off these shows and their news reporting (choice of stories more than explicit reporting bias) causes most of the rest of the country between the coasts to hold them, their self-absorption, and their not-so-transparent social and political priorities, at a skeptical arm’s length.

    Fox News would not have much of a foothold were it not for this….

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  10. Eric M. Jones. says:

    “When in trouble or in doubt–run in circles, scream and shout…”

    I have three letters for you BBC.

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  11. Nomativo says:

    The media: Just like the boy who cried wolf. Kudos to Bloomberg though, better safe than sorry indeed.

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  12. Brian Gray says:

    This happens every year multiple times a year in South Florida. Even if the hurricane misses us completely they will interupt shows and try and scare you for something new or save face.

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  13. David Coursey says:

    Here’s a research idea: We have some idea how many deaths are attributable to Irene. But how many people aren’t dead because the storm took place? Is it possible that a reduction in crime, traffic accidents, other types of accidents, people deciding to live an extra or or two because of the excitement, etc., means that more people were alive following the storm than would have survived without it? My guess is Irene was a, however brief, net-positive for life expectancy.

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  14. Joshua says:

    Guys, you gotta look at this comic strip AND read “Dear readers” bellow the cartoon.

    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/weather

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  15. Cory says:

    As someone who lives in the Midwest (Minneapolis), welcome to media coverage in general. In the winter, we regularly get plenty of snow and some very cold weather. But when they get half of it on the east coast, the news programs are running around like the country is about to shut down.

    Whenever something happens to New York, Philly, Boston or Washington, the coverage will be about 5x’s greater than it could possibly deserve.

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  16. Jay says:

    There’s an epidemic in this country, and it’s called “Local News”. Regardless of how mundane or underwhelming a story might be, the more sensational the local coverage. This is typical of almost any story. How many times do you turn on a local newscast, only to find a reporter standing in the middle of nowhere, explaining that “six hours ago, in this darkened building behind me….”. It’s all about ratings, and trying to one-up the competition. Local news could replace most sitcoms in the laugh department, if the coverage weren’t so ludicrous.

    Back in ’92 when Andrew decimated parts of S. Florida, one weatherman (I believe Brian Norcross) was the only person to accurately predict the hardest hit areas, and was credited not only for getting it right, but for saving countless lives in the process. Since that time, EVERY Florida forecaster has jumped on the Hurricane bandwagon, and the hype has become more laughable with each passing storm…to the point where most people are completely ambivalent. Of course, the reality is far different…9 out of 10 times they’ve gotten it completely wrong, and even #10 doesn’t live up to expectations. Local weathermen (or women) have it made…in what other profession can you be wrong 95% of the time, and still collect a handsome paycheck. And of course, when they’re wrong, they can shrug their shoulders and blame it on “Mother Nature’s unpredictability”.

    Back to local news….in the case of the NY Media (as well as Connecticut)…the newscasters clearly ran out of things to say by mid-afternoon Saturday, and I suspect their so-called “reporters” burned a lot of fuel, driving around trying to find that “fallen tree”, or that “downed electrical wire”. Anything to maintain the hype and build on their already tepid reputations.

    Mr. Phillips….your article hits the proverbial nail on the head. Fortunately, there is an antidote to all the local media madness….it’s called the off-switch!

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  17. Natalie @ Mango says:

    Hahah! I saw something like that on the news too, BSK. We all know by now that the media tends to… eh, over-amplify things sometimes, but I mean, who is going to watch a program about how the hurricane “might be a little dangerous.” Anyway, even if the reports were a little bit over the top for what actually happened, I think it’s better safe than sorry. We’ve seen what can happen when natural disaster strikes and people are not at all prepared; it’s probably better to spend the money and energy to evacuate and prepare yourself for the worst-case scenario, just in case it does happen.

    I work for Mango Money’s blog and I am currently working on a post about preparing for natural disasters, like this one. I think I’ll include a little something about Irene– how while it may not have been as disastrous as was predicted, it’s still better to be safe than sorry. It will be up in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime, stop by and check us out! :o) Loving your blog so far! http://www.mangomoney.com/blog/

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  18. Shane says:

    Little anecdote. I was reporting for a daily newspaper once when we got a message that a sudden storm had struck a group of children and teenagers sailing near the coast and that dozens of them were in the water. I was rushed to the scene, where I found:

    - lots of emergency service vehicles parked
    - lots of excited journalists milling about trying to interview survivors
    - children and teenagers, looking content and bemused by the attention.

    It seemed that a squall had knocked over a lot of their boats, but that this is not an unusual thing to happen. Nobody was hurt. I think some childred had been taken to hospital as a precaution. The rest were chatting happily to journalists, explaining that it was no big deal, while the journalists probed them with leading questions to get exciting quotes.

    Bizarrely, the minister for education arrived so journalists interviewed her too.

    Really there was no story. When I got back to the office, however, my editor was relying on me to fill up a lot of space with this story so I had to write a ludicrously long piece about this non-incident! The next day other newspapers had shocking stories that looked for someone to blame. One led with the headline: “Teens in near-disaster as wind alert ignored”. It showed me how news media can twist the truth without any intentional bias, seeking a scandal because empty space in the newspaper is intolerable.

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  19. Jason says:

    Local media only works to play you like a fool, and they often win. I gave up on them post-9/11 and haven’t regretted it since. In fact, I’m far more informed and less neurotic than most I know.

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