On every TV station this morning, broadcasters were hot and heavy with anticipation for Hurricane Irene's arrival in New York. The moment we'd all been waiting for, what we'd re-planned our weekends around!
Luckily, of course, Irene wasn't anything near the worst-case scenario. By the time the storm actually hit the city, it had been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm. But still, cable news kept hyping it, telling us that something could still go wrong. The worst wasn't over! Even though meteorologists clearly indicated that, yep, the worst was over.
As Howard Kurtz described in the Daily Beast, some reporters were even less willing to admit this thing wasn't a huge deal:
When the Weather Channel’s Brian Norcross told MSNBC that forecasters had been expecting the first hurricane to make landfall in New York City since 1893—“and it didn’t happen”—anchor Alex Witt was openly skeptical.
“Really, Brian?” she asked. Hadn’t Irene technically still been a hurricane when it came ashore in New York an hour earlier? “Can’t we still go with that?”
No, Norcross said.
With not much to report on the island of Manhattan, the cable news channels switched to places like Long Beach, Long Island, where such correspondents as NBC’s Al Roker and CNN’s John King delivered their wind-whipped reports. “It looks pretty hurricane-ish to me,” Fox anchor Shep Smith said as reporter Jonathan Hunt, British and breathless, showed a hotel parking lot under a foot and a half of water.
Long Beach, it should be noted, is a narrow barrier island three feet above sea level and prone to flooding.
Cable news was particularly culpable in the overhyping of Irene, but the constant information stream of Twitter also contributed to the group-think anxiety: Photoshopped or out-of-context, dramatic pictures reverberated around, retweeted by people going stir-crazy, waiting for something to actually happen that would somehow make their preparations seem wise.
Part of that is why the media wouldn't give up on the idea that Irene was a huge natural disaster: If you've been asked to reshuffle your weekend to cover a story, there's a tiny part of you that says, well, this better be worth it. Then, of course, there's the fact that much of the national media calls New York home. The story looms larger if its in your own backyard, and everyone sort of wanted in on the action. Nicholas Confessore, a politics reporter for the Times, hopped off his regular topic, to do a bit of reporting. It was crowded beat, judging by this tweet of his: " Stopped to interview someone. It was another reporter. #irene #reporterproblems. " Then was Anderson Cooper, who'd really made his name bravely reporting on Katrina's devasation, standing in front of a bodega. Surely more than a few cable and weather reporters figured, hey, this could be my moment.
Less cynically, of course, if the media doesn't alert the public to a worst-case scenario, fewer people are prepared. It's more responsible to overreport than underreport. As Channel 4's Chuck Scarborough said on-air, it's part of the game: "We're in the news business. We deal in doom." And alarm is good for ratings. If you tell everyone the worst is passed, they're going to turn you off. For some, that's worse news than a natural disaster.