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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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