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