Hurricane Irene Coverage: Hype, or Helpful?

As Hurricane Irene approached the east coast, airports shutdown, subway systems closed and thousands of residents evacuated. Some areas sustained heavy damage, but the devastation failed to live up to the sometimes dire warnings. Many people complained that the media over-hyped the danger.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host: A week ago, as Hurricane Irene bore down on the Eastern Seaboard, millions prepared for the worst. Airports shut down; subway systems closed; anxious shoppers cleared the shelves of batteries and toilet paper - all fueled by fearsome forecasts and relentless updates. On the Weather Channel, Jim Cantore reported live from the southern tip of Manhattan.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEATHER CHANNEL BROADCAST)

JIM CANTORE: And this is exactly what we feared, the time of high tide maximized with the storm surge coming in. Here it is; look at this. Here we are in Battery Park, on the boardwalk. And you can see about six to eight inches of rain, easily, up on top of this boardwalk.

CONAN: And politicians issued dire warnings, including President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

Governor CHRIS CHRISTIE: Get the hell off the beach in Asbury Park, and get out. You're done. It's 4:30. You've maximized your tan. Get off the beach.

CONAN: Before it was over, Irene killed dozens and left millions without power. Vermont and other parts of the Northeast continue to deal with floods. But given the level of warning, many people complained about hype. Given what happened where you live, were the warnings and news coverage justified? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we'll begin with this email from Kimberly: Here in Vermont, I wish there had been more coverage and/or warning. I guess no one knew how bad the flooding would be, but to many people I know, Irene - which was a tropical storm by the time it reached here - was devastating. Many roads are torn up. Trying to get around is difficult for me, and impossible for others. People still don't have power. Houses are gone. I don't think we were prepared for this. I was ready for power outages, as were many others, but not for this kind of flooding and damage. I don't know whether it was hype elsewhere but here, it was definitely not overblown. Fortunately, many people are pitching in to help friends and neighbors.

And we also want to read from excerpts from some blogs and news opinion pieces. And, well, much of the criticism was generated from a piece by Howard Kurtz, the media critic on the Daily Beast. And he said - wrote - someone has to say it: Cable news was utterly swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon. National news organizations morphed into local eyewitness news operations, going wall-to-wall for days with dire warnings about what would turn out to be a category one hurricane, the lowest possible ranking.

Cable news is scaring the crap out of me, and I work in cable news, Bloomberg correspondent Lizzie O'Leary tweeted. But the tsunami of hype on this story was relentless - a category five performance driven, in large measure, by ratings. Every producer knew that to abandon the coverage even briefly - say, to cover the continued fighting in Libya - was to risk driving viewers elsewhere.

Websites, too, were running dramatic headlines, even as it became apparent that the storm wasn't as powerful as advertised. The fact that New York, home to the nation's top news outlets, was directly in the storm's path clearly fed this story on steroids. That, again, from Howard Kurtz, the media critic of The Daily Beast. Well, given what happened where you live, was Hurricane Irene hyped - 800-989-8255; email, talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with Melissa, Melissa on the line with us from Greenville in North Carolina.

Melissa, are you there? Melissa? OK. Melissa has left us, I guess. We don't know the cause of that. Let's go to another email. This is from Lee. Lee writes: Of course, the media went overboard. What else is there to do in a really slow news season? The necessary information could be conveyed in 15 to 20 minutes. The rest just serves to titillate a public used to seeing weather as a form of natural terrorism or just another reality show.

This from Virginia: Over 40 dead, millions out of power, major infrastructure destruction, entire communities crippled. If that had happened in Manhattan, would you be talking about hurricane hype? And there's - in the "538" column in the New York Times, Nate Silver directly responded to criticism that we mentioned by Howard Kurtz and Jeff Jarvis, another one.

So Irene, right now, ranks as the 10th deadliest storm since 1980, with some possibility of that number going higher. And it ranks as the eighth most destructive storm economically, give or take. Meanwhile, it's received about the 10th most media coverage. What's the problem with that? Actually, I don't see any problem with it whatsoever. The level of coverage given to Irene seems quite appropriate given what we know about its impact, but you can find some plenty of critiques.

It wasn't the worst-case scenario either for Irene in particular, or for hurricanes hitting New York in general. But I don't see how you dismiss it as hype. If, as Mr. Kurtz says, the prophets of doom were wrong, I'm not looking forward to seeing what's - happened when they're right.

800-989-8255, email, talk@npr.org. And let's get a caller on the line. Go ahead, please.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi. I'm calling from Rhode Island, from Narragansett Bay.

CONAN: And what was it like where you live?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we had a number of trees down, and all kinds of rain and wind and - but my real - I was also in St. Croix in 1989 for Hurricane Hugo - on our boat - and we got off our boat and we went into a house, which was blown apart by the storm. But two weeks before that was Hurricane Dean, which missed us. And then so many people did nothing in preparation for Hugo, because they'd already gone through that for Dean and they said oh, it's just more hype. Preparing and not having the storm hit, or not having it hit as badly, is not a problem. And I don't understand why people make that out to be a problem.

And the other thing is that there's so much time spent interviewing people that stay in dangerous places - like out on Ocracoke Island this year - when they should move. And then they make these people, who are putting themselves and rescuers and other people in harm's way, out to be like some macho men and women and heroes, and all that. And it's absolutely ludicrous. If there's a dangerous storm coming, prepare. And it's not hype. I mean, yes, there's this - some nonsense involved in all of this. But the reality is, weather can be extremely dangerous.

CONAN: On forbes.com, Patrick Michaels emphasized the point that you just made. He called Irene - to call Irene - he called Irene hurricane hype and worried about - that people would not listen to warnings next time. As I complete this, he wrote, there's another tropical depression out in the Atlantic, and a couple more on the way in the very near future. Suppose one of these takes a similar path, except that it improbably threads the needle of the mid-Atlantic bight, and makes landfall immediately to the west of New York City as a Category 3 storm. How many people will the hyping of Irene have killed? That's how hurricane hype, followed by hurricane insanity, leads to hurricane death.

Thanks very much for the call.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see. Let's go next to - this is Linda, and Linda with us from Venus in Florida - Venice.

LINDA: Hi. Venice, Florida, right.

CONAN: Yeah.

LINDA: I just wanted to say - I wanted to make a comment about the comparison between the hype of a hurricane and what I saw as the huge hype of the East Coast earthquake. I'm - I live in Florida now, but I'm from California so I've experienced both big earthquakes and hurricanes firsthand. Hurricanes are extremely difficult to predict the path and the intensity of, but I personally found the East Coast reaction to a relatively small earthquake to be pretty hilarious.

CONAN: My sister, who lives in San Francisco, called it a foot massager.

LINDA: Yes, exactly. I mean, I was talking to my son who lives in California, and we were saying gee, we don't even - you know, Californians don't even blink for that.

CONAN: On the other hand, news is when something is unusual. It's been a hundred years since anything like that happened on the East Coast.

LINDA: And I thought that that was fine, that it - the fact that it was unusual. It was just the - like, two-day coverage going back and I thought - the part that I found the most hilarious was when two news stations were reporting that there would not be a tsunami - which, of course, there can't be a tsunami since the epicenter wasn't out at sea.

CONAN: All right, Linda. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

LINDA: You're welcome. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Here's an email from Janet(ph) in Easton, Pennsylvania: It is frustrating to even hear this question. If you've ever been through these kinds of weather events - if you've ever had trees fall over because the ground was so saturated with rain, if you've ever had five and half feet of muddy water in your basement, if you spent one or two or three days without power, if you've ever listened with dread to each gust of wind and waiting for something to crash through the window or a roof - you are thrilled when the weather doesn't live up to the prediction. This time, the Delaware River across the road from house crested at just 24.6 feet, although 31 feet was predicted. At 31 feet, I would have had 10- or 12-foot swatch of mud across my lawn and drive. Give me the overhyped storm anytime.

And let's see if we can go next to - this is Paul, and Paul is calling from Long Island in New York.

PAUL: Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

PAUL: Yeah. Well, on Long Island, we really didn't get the localized coverage, even on the radio. Everything was like New York City, New York City. Hardly any coverage on Long Island. If you don't have electric, you can't get the TV, but even on TV they were skeptical. You know, there's only Long Island TV station, News 12.

CONAN: And there's a number of Long Island radio stations, though.

PAUL: Yeah, that's it. That's it. And if you couldn't get the signal - because they were having problems with their antennas - we were pretty left out, in the dark.

CONAN: And so without power, obviously, you couldn't get on the computer and...

PAUL: Exactly.

CONAN: ...get the localized coverage there.

PAUL: Exactly. We - you know, everything was New York City, New York, you know, New Jersey, but very little about Long Island.

CONAN: And given what you heard, did you think the coverage was overhyped?

PAUL: For New York City, yes, yes. Yes, I thought it was a little much. But just information, you've been - we've been through these events before so we know how to prepare for them. I mean, anybody who wasn't smart enough to make ice and keep their food cool, you know, in case of the electricity - because LILCO is a terrible - a terrible company. You know, they don't even keep their right-of-ways clean...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: ...from trees.

CONAN: Paul, thanks very much for the call. Glad you made it.

PAUL: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about reaction to the controversy over hype about Hurricane Irene. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's go next to Hassan(ph), Hassan with us from Charlotte.

HASSAN: Yes. Hello there.

CONAN: Hi.

HASSAN: Yes, hi. So, Charlotte, North Carolina, has experienced maybe one hurricane in the most recent - Hurricane Hugo, I believe, 20 years ago. And there was one hurricane that was supposed to hit, but it didn't. However, when Irene came, many news agencies across the nation - and I think even international - were saying that Charlotte, North Carolina, was to be evacuated, because they said the hurricane was to hit. So throughout the - so for about two days, we had family and friends, and even people we barely knew, were calling us, saying oh, you have to evacuate, consider yourselves. You'll be destroyed.

CONAN: Hassan, I remember hearing stories about parts of North Carolina - the Outer Banks, in particular - being evacuated. I didn't hear anything about Charlotte.

HASSAN: Well, I do know it was a couple of news agencies. I'm not sure which ones. I remember one in Maryland that talked about Charlotte having an evacuation - not mandatory. And they said, you know, Charlotte's evacuating and then we, virtually, have to explain it's - North Carolina is big; we have the Outer Banks, and then Charlotte's more inland. And then others said no, no, no; it's specifically Charlotte. And we were just very confused. We were like, what's going on? Is the media saying this? And they said yeah, the media. And so...

CONAN: Well, more important, did the governor say it? And I don't think she did.

HASSAN: I don't believe she did, which was just quite strange. I didn't know where they got the information from. It was very confusing for us. And it was funny because the next day, Charlotte was very sunny. It was very hot.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HASSAN: So yeah - and I mean, I believe the hype was overhyped, but it's better to be overprepared than underprepared, like Katrina.

CONAN: There's a point, Hassan. Thanks very much. I'm glad you rode out the storm safely.

HASSAN: All right, thank you very much. Bye.

CONAN: On NetRight Daily, Howard Rich of Americans for Limited Government included that the government overreaction was much costlier than the storm itself. He writes: At least a dozen Irene-related deaths occurred as a result of traffic accidents or flooded cars, raising questions about the efficacy of evacuation orders. By contrast, only a handful of fatalities appear to be linked to people killed in their homes. Also, beyond the millions of tax dollars spent on emergency preparedness efforts and clean-up costs, Irene is likely to spark still more government spending, even in states that were not even hit by the hurricane.

Let's go next to - this Gina, Gina with us from Pascagoula in Michigan.

GINA: In Mississippi ...

CONAN: Mississippi.

GINA: Not Michigan, yes. And my - having lived through Katrina, we're - my friends and my family and I - are just amazed that people are complaining about too much coverage, and then just stand in line to return food that they overbought. You know, it's a gamble and you've won this time, you know? It's - we would have loved to have had the news coverage and the, you know, the forecast that the Northwest - Northeast got. It's amazing. We're amazed. They seemed so ungrateful.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And besides, you've got all that stored cans of beans.

GINA: Well, there you go. You have block parties. You have neighbors, and you celebrate that you're still alive, you know. You're not burying people, you know. You help each other clean out. You don't complain that Home Depot won't take the generator back ...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: OK. Gina, thanks. And that generator may come in handy for a thunderstorm, anyway.

GINA: Always.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

GINA: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Kelly in Monroe, Connecticut. We were ready for the storm, thanks to the news. A tree had us trapped on our dead end street for two days until a tree crew cut it down. Thank goodness I have a generator. We still do not have power, and I will not until September 8th. No cable, phone or Internet either. The company where I work just re-opened today. It was bad for us here, and continues to be.

This is from Dominique(ph): I wish that the warnings could have reached the two 25-year-olds who lost their lives walking in the hurricane.

And this is from Janet(ph) in Sonoma: Certainly, hype for us on the West Coast. Since your news comes from the east, I understand it being East Coast-centered. But here - but out here, it is way, way too much.

And we had Chris(ph) - Curtis Brainard writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about complaints that coverage of Irene obliterated other news around the world. According to the Pew Research Center's News Coverage Index for August 22 to 28, unrest in the Middle East was the top story, accounting for 26 percent of the news hole in all media, while Irene occupied 21 percent. The hurricane was the top story on TV, the focus of much ire, filling 33 percent of the news hole. But it is simply unfair to say that broadcast journalists ignored the events in Libya and elsewhere.

Yes, coverage of the hurricane could have been better, but coverage of every story could always be better. TV news is what it is. Our nonstop news cycle means that wherever there is a slow-moving, breaking news story, television is going to exploit it, often in ways that are inefficient and sometimes kind of silly. Yet given what the experts were saying early on about Irene, the talk about too much hype seems like, well, hype. If Irene had behaved a little bit differently - by maintaining its Category 1 strength right up to the shores of Long Island, for instance - the critics would be having a very different conversation right now.

Thanks to all of you who wrote and emailed and gave us a call. I'm sorry we couldn't get to all of your messages. You could still get into the conversation, though. Go on to our website, npr.org.; click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at a DNA detective work to track down the microbe behind the Black Death. Join him for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.