I normally write about books, and publishing, and the creative process, but this time I decided to add my opinions about recent events in the news. In actuality, my comments are not as much about the events themselves, but are instead about the way the events were covered by the various media.
As I write this, it is midday Monday following a weekend where a major hurricane threatened the East Coast of the United States for the first time in several years. This particular storm threatened a significant portion of the coastline, with early reports a week ago warned of potential landfall anywhere from Florida to Maine.
There are reports of just over twenty fatalities now, and although the storm is now a weak front far away from US territory, swollen rivers and streams are flooding low-lying areas in the Northeastern United States and millions of homes are without power, phone service and (in many cases) potable water.
In the interest of disclosure, I admit that I worked in broadcasting many years ago. It is that experience that helped shape my opinion of the way that radio, television, and newspapers covered the approach and onslaught of the storm.
I write this from my home in New England where the recent storm was considerably weaker than a hurricane, but I have siblings whose homes are located in areas that have been devastated by significant hurricanes such as Hugo, Andrew, and Isabel, to name a few. One of the siblings is currently without electricity, and is told not to expect power to be restored for two weeks.
I cannot speak for other areas of the East Coast, but nearly continuous broadcast coverage of the storm began here in Massachusetts on Friday when the storm was still exiting the Bahamas more than a thousand miles away. By Saturday, the coverage on local television had pre-empted most programs. The coverage was increasing Saturday as the storm moved onshore in North Carolina and hugged the coast as it inexorably moved northward. Overnight Saturday, the coverage turned continuous as the first tenuous rain bands arrived over Long Island. Normal programming did not resume until after 6PM Sunday in the Boston area, although the strong winds continued into the wee hours of Monday morning.
I am a firm believer in being prepared for situations, and that good information is critical in making decisions to better prepare yourself. What I saw on Saturday and Sunday was a lot of air-time consumed and not a lot of new information presented.
As early as Thursday, national and local meteorologists had been predicting significant storm damage in New England. Days before, they had warned of the “potential” of the hurricane reaching this area, but as the storm strengthened and the track became more certain, the word “potential” was also dropped in favor of certainty of storm-related effects. From about Friday morning until the storm had passed, the drumbeat of dire warnings in newspapers, on radio and on television continued.
Even as the storm weakened, as many hurricanes do when moving north of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic, the warnings remained severe. When the National Weather Service lowered the severity of regional watch advisories, the media cautioned that there was still a potential for major wind and rain damage.
The field reporters on television were obviously desperate for pictures of anything that looked like horrific damage. On radio, callers with reports of downed trees and power outages were put on the air.
To be sure, tropical storm Irene (it was not a hurricane when it reached New England midday on Sunday) did sink some pleasure boats and break sailboats free of their moorings. Yes, there were trees, tree limbs, branches and leaves down over the entire six-state area. There were a few people (in New England) that were injured or killed by drowning or being struck by falling trees, or in unusual traffic accidents. My concern is that “wall-to-wall” coverage of the storm did not prevent any of those deaths, nor could it.
I believe that the constant images on TV and dire intonations on radio may have had the opposite effect, as people looked out their own windows and saw nothing dangerous even as the reporters and weather forecasters spoke of dangerous conditions happening apparently in the same neighborhood as viewers seeing contradictory evidence with their own eyes. Curiosity may have led some to venture out to see if what they were hearing was over-enthusiastic reportage or not. There were, in fact, pedestrians in the background of several television reports from the city, some obviously jogging and others walking their pets even as the in-studio anchors reported gale-force wind gusts and downpours were affecting the area.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the coverage was the “no-news” paradox. The stations were determined to stay on full-time coverage in case something happened, but there was nothing newsworthy happening, other than a few loose boats, some power outages and a few toppled trees. Much of the coverage was punctuated with “so far there has been no damage, but…” statements – further proof that there was no news. The storm had behaved approximately as had been predicted days earlier.
Hindsight is 20/20, they say. The coverage was unexciting, and one might add was unnecessarily intrusive. With the tools we have today for weather prediction (particularly when one compares a very slow-moving hurricane/tropical-storm to a tornado or even a surprise blizzard), in the absence of noteworthy changes in the storm or increased damage or loss of life, the public would have been better served by periodic half-hour updates than the continuous repetition of “so far so good” we got instead.