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Local Media Hype

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Imagine there is a hurricane sweeping through a region. Imagine that the weather forecasts say that it will be a sizable storm affecting a large part of the country, and that there will be considerable risk to life and property of citizens. Reasonably, the media, especially local television, plan to report on nothing else for a few days in advance and at least a week to come. What should the media do if the hurricane is weaker than expected? In particular, what should the local media do, whose job it is to keep their audience informed of locally relevant developments?

Hurricane Irene's recent journey up the US East Coast poses interesting questions regarding the role of local media, questions that are relevant elsewhere too. Local media are a key player in community processes, community governance, and local democratic processes. They provide information about issues that affect the community and foster ties among the members of the community by communicating a form of community identity. This goes for local television, local radio - the most relevant local medium in many developing countries - and local newspapers, probably also for locally centered IT applications. Of course, if a hurricane sweeps through your region, you want the local media to be on top of it and keep you up to date.

And the local media will gladly oblige, since major events like a hurricane guarantee viewers. And here comes the glitch, a potential clash between the community obligations of local media and their economic interests: Irene didn't turn out to be as bad as expected, although with a death toll of over 40 at the time of writing, it was bad enough. The storm lost strength on its northward journey and while it caused considerable damage, the extent of this damage was arguably lesser than feared in the beginning. Nevertheless, before, throughout, and after the storm the media kept on turning each stone to find disaster - it was as if they actually wanted a catastrophe to happen and were outright angry that it didn't. Sensationalism and the need to keep people tuned in seemed to have outweighed the need for accurate reporting and telling the community what was actually happening. There are a few potential consequences that would be unfortunate indeed.

First of all, hyping Irene into a natural disaster while citizens in many regions didn't experience it as such can breed cynicism and disinterest for future events, which might turn out to be much worse. With the next storm, people might be more inclined to shrug at the media's warning to prepare for a storm since the media's sensationalism wasn't justified for many this time round. Next time I might be unimpressed by what I experienced as hype this time, tell myself that the media tend to exaggerate, and disregard serious warnings. That could lead to real catastrophe.

Second, the local media's frenetic scramble to find something disastrous can foster general distrust among the local audience with regard to all reporting. If media coverage of a local event that immediately impacts the audience does not correspond to what the audience actually experiences, people may not trust this particular source of information in the future. This is a problem if it affects the local media's ability to fulfill its role in the community.

With regard to political reporting, studies show that sensationalism breeds cynicism and inertia. Both not good when you really need to run from a hurricane. If a fire alarm rings all the time, people will disregard it, with potentially dire consequences.

Picture: Democrat and Chronicle


The flip side of this is surely that good warnings will cause citizens to prepare for the storm and reduce the impacts. Some might see the warnings as unnecessary, but without them how many more deaths would there be? To my mind journalism is never good at dealing with predicted events, perhaps it isn't part of the training. Or maybe we expect too much. It can be great at improving our understanding of what actually happened and the impacts. This in turn leads to better governance, better engineering, perhaps even better science. From an engineer/scientists view I feel that what's needed next is better models of the impacts of natural disasters. Predicting a storm, its path and intensity is now achievable, but leaving it to the imagination and references to remembered past events doesn't properly prepare anyone for what will actually happen.

Submitted by james martone on
Thank goodness for internet, where we can pick and chose what we want to read. If we had to go only by the front pages, we'd think the world was always on verge of collapse. (Is it??) I understand author's point completely, though. I too got caught up in the frenzy of warnings, and skipped going to a play Saturday night, as I'd assumed it would be canceled, but it wasn't. I forgot that the show always goes on!

Submitted by Anonymous on
The fact that a disaster was less serious than expected ex post does also not mean that significant coverage was not justified ex ante. Decisions have to be made based on potential risks, without knowing what the final impact will be. Nor is a low death toll evidence that precautions were excessive; equally they can be evidence that precautions worked! Is there some risk of "boy-who-cried-wolf" syndrome? Sure. Which is why ideally political leaders and scientists will make a fuss only when it makes sense to do so given the best available information, and why we should try to educate people that relatively low disaster toll ex post doesn't mean that serious precautions weren't the right thing to do. But other than that, I don't really see any policy prescription here. I don't think we can end media sensationalism by fiat. And the level of sensationalism relative to potential for widespread damage seems much lower for serious disasters than it does for many other things that local media focus on (like crime).

Submitted by Anonymous on
As someone coming from a developing country, I am actually thrilled by the amount of coverage the local media dedicate to weather, not just during storms but even during regular days. In my homeland, news about weather is more of an after-thought and it's presented as a news item rather than a forecast. We have been through several storms and never once did we have such a diligent coverage to provide constant weather information in my country that could have prevented several unnecessary fatalities. Now coming to Irene, does it warrant a 24-hr coverage just like Fox and the other networks did here in DC? May be, not. But by overblowing/sensationalizing the threat, they were able to prevent more casualties. For example, the poster above stayed home instead of going for a show. What if his/her car got stuck if he/she had ventured out? That puts the emergency personnel in harm's way. Thanks to the TV/Radio stations, we have created a perception of fear, which may or may not be right, but at least it contributes to reducing the amount of stress on folks who respond during emergency situations. Finally, we have a choice to change the channel/radio station. If you don't like to watch the non-stop coverage, you could have changed the channel.

Submitted by james martone on
In my view, it is not the role of the medio to create "a perception of fear." Media should give the facts on which we can then base our decisions to be afraid or not, or in my case, to go to the theater or not!

Submitted by Anonymous on
Hindsight is always 20/20. It is misleading to take the example of one hurricane that was weaker than predicted (although the predictions were surprisingly precise in terms of the projected path), and use it for broad generalizations.

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