Most news media organizations exist to inform, but more than ever in this internet age, in order to survive, the traditional news media look to sell stories as best they can. There is a long-standing aphorism in reporters’ circles: “if it bleeds, it leads.” No doubt many, if not most journalists perform their job in the service of truth, however, none would deny that headlines provoking fear, or other forms of intense passion practically scream for attention.
Like the dark, swollen clouds preceding a downpour, the media’s coverage of Hurricane Irene in the hours before its 2011 New York City landfall painted an apocalyptic image. It prophesied the coming of a deluge unlike any in over a century. A stream of dire reports all blared the same warning: Irene would be the first hurricane category storm to reach Manhattan since 1983.
Government officials were quick to act on the news media’s forecasts of doom; New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s frank suggestion that residents should “get the hell off the beach” was the subject of hours of coverage. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also appeared repeatedly to elaborate on the evacuation of the city’s lower-lying areas. FEMA officials, as well as President Obama himself, all wasted no time in informing the public that the Federal government was well-prepared for a storm that would be an unmatched cataclysm, at least according to the same news sources broadcasting statements of reassurance.
Those with a responsibility to defend against natural disaster certainly should be prepared for all scenarios–especially the worst case–but the barrage of press conferences airing as Irene moved toward Manhattan exemplified a symbiosis between government officials and the news media. Not only did the coverage draw in countless viewers searching for reassurance; it also proved that the executives trusted to ensure public safety were doing exactly that.
When Tropical Storm Irene actually hit New York, the alarming narrative had to, at last, be swapped for reality. For Manhattan, at least, the level of destruction that occurred is best summarized by a statement from CNN’s Anderson Cooper, on the scene at Battery Park in lower Manhattan: “There has been some flooding–not a huge amount of flooding, and some of the water is already starting to recede…It’s actually not bad at all.”
None of this is intended to downplay the total $16.6 billion in property damage caused by Irene, or in any way belittle the 56 lives lost. In many places across the US and elsewhere, the storm was extreme. Thankfully however, it was far from the Armageddon that those who watched its nonstop coverage might have been led to expect. The fact remains that the news media will always find a way to generate the most intense feelings it can, generating visceral reactions among viewers hungry for excitement. Rather than getting swept away by media hype surrounding natural disasters, as with all other news, it’s important to weigh what is reported with a critical eye, and a clear head.