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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  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. Nomativo says:

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

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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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