So, Hurricane Irene becomes Tropical Storm Irene and doesn’t do her anticipated damage – at least not in the major media markets. First, I want to note that if you think Irene was a dud, there are millions without power and thousands dealing with flooding who would beg to differ. But that’s not what I am actually posting about today. I am about to defend the media (a little) and challenge you to make a difference.
First, a little secret. At most news organizations (and I won’t say all – but I will say at every one I have worked at), the folks you love to be mad at when a storm doesn’t live up to your expectations would like nothing more than in fact to give you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth… They are meteorologists who really and truly want to get it right. When Irene was churning toward the coast and the National Hurricane Center forecasters were thinking it would strengthen and rake the Eastern Seaboard, the weather folks putting in 18-hour days weren’t doing it because they wanted to hype things up and be wrong. They were doing it because it was so critical that they do the best they can to be right. They know that the information they are working with could actually save lives.
Is there some breathlessness about it? Of course there is. Severe weather is where all the science and study comes together. Major planetary forces interact, creating systems with massive power that in many cases, create their own rules. Hurricane forecasters note that the systems for figuring out where a storm will go are getting more and more accurate as computer models are improved. But there’s more of a ways to go when it comes to determining how well a storm keeps its power. It’s science in action, and it can be truly fascinating. So of course, there is a level of excitement – not driven by the fact that people could be harmed, but by the fact that this is a chance to learn, understand, and share some remarkable happenings.
As for the crews, don’t think that they don’t want to do a good job. They’re being pelted with sand, dust, debris, salt spray, hail, and whatever else can be kicked up by a severe storm. And OK, there is a fun aspect to being out in the middle of it all (more for a hurricane than for winter storms – not many reporters can as fired up for that). But it’s not glamorous, and it’s even less fun to be out there when not much is going on trying to make it seem like something is going on.
So if the people putting it together want to do it well – what’s with the hype factor?
There are two problems. First, it’s difficult to have your people in the perfect places for a weather event – because Mother Nature doesn’t really give a poop about your coverage plans. She apparently doesn’t even have cable. Once a major storm arrives, you are where you are and it’s really hard to move. So, while you’re standing somewhere where there are trees blowing around, the river 20 miles away is out of its banks and devastating a community. But you can’t easily get there because — get this — a river is out of its banks and devastating a community. You can’t move (both because it is hard to move and because of my next point below). But the problems overall are serious enough that you need to keep reporting. So you stay out there, even if you can’t get to the action. When your pictures don’t match your words – you get accused of hype.
Second, there is the business perspective here, if you are live with the weather story, people watch. If you switch to other, arguably more important, news – many of them switch to another place that is still on the weather story. You can see it happen in the ratings. And ultimately, the only thing that will change the business side of that is if people stop watching. I do have to chuckle when I hear from people who say “I watched for six hours yesterday and all I got was hurricane coverage.” Because those same people weren’t watching for six hours on other days when there was no hurricane. Until you turn your eyes away from weather coverage, I guarantee you will get more weather coverage. (Ditto car chases and sex scandals.)
In this day and age, there are more options than ever for you, if you want to escape the hype, go online. Punch up the radar on a local station’s website, mobile app, or whatever and look for the really bright colors that mean you are about to get dumped on. Buy a NOAA weather radio that automatically alerts you of severe weather is in your immediate area. Read a book. Clean your house. But whatever you do – especially if you’re one of those lucky people who has a Nielsen meter – don’t watch something on TV unless you really mean to watch TV.
I’m a TV person in my background – and I think there are a lot of things the broadcast media can do very well. I hope you continue to watch. But you have a responsibility in this as well. If you want quality, and no hype – reward those who provide it. Tell your friends. Use the power of social technology to get better content. Don’t settle.