The media coverage of Irene is a classic example of crying wolf. For those not familiar with the Aesop fable, a shepherd boy out in the field with the sheep cried “wolf!” to the villagers because he thought it was fun to see them come running to protect the flock. But he discovered that after a few times of false alarms they ignored the warning. So when the wolf did come, it feasted on the sheep because of the shepherd boy’s stupidity.
Crying wolf is dangerous. But it is almost inevitable when the media has demonstrated that there is no higher requirement than getting ratings. Over ten years ago a reporter from the largest regional TV station in our area told me that it was an embarrassment to him as a reporter to see how storms were covered. They’d send the reporter out to the windiest spot they could find, like a bridge with flags flapping in the background, they’d put a bright yellow rain coat on the reporter, have him bend against the wind and talk about the big storm. He told me there were ratings meters in the station manager’s office and they could see the ratings jump with the public fears about the big storm.
As this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer points out, Irene was a deadly storm with 18 deaths and that the media plays a vital role in the warning the public to take the dangers of a major storm very seriously. But it also points out that “some cable anchors were still reporting that Irene could strike New Jersey and New York as a major hurricane long after his team determined that it clearly was weakening.”
That’s not just mistaken or poor reporting. That’s intentionally lying, that is crying wolf. The author of the article, Will Bunch, also very succinctly nailed the reasons behind this kind of media coverage: Ratings, journalist careers, and political opportunism. (Anderson Cooper, it is pointed out, was offered his primetime anchor spot after his spirited coverage during Katrina.)
What bothers me is the same forces are at work in coverage of crises and human-caused events such as oil spills. That trifold motivation–ratings, careers and political grandstanding–play into overheated media coverage of events, particularly when human error or negligence plays a role vs. acts of God or nature such as Irene. Of course it is in the media’s interest to create the impression that every inch of beach is covered in oil, that complicated series of decisions were caused by greed or incompetence, that the fancy software in your car can cause it to behave like the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It’s in the politician’s interest to feed on the fear and outrage created by this kind of coverage to be the white knight and propose legislative or regulatory solutions to the problem.
Sometimes, I sort of feel like I am crying wolf in continually harping about the problems with news coverage today. Many seem to think that it is quite normal, to be expected and really not so bad. There are outstanding examples of tremendous journalism. But, is there any doubt that the overwhelming inclination of major media outlets in today’s hyper-competitive environment is to put ratings above responsibility? Survival is at stake. The problem is that as the coverage of Irene makes clear, lives are also at stake. The article above points out, what happens when a Category 5 storm hits and people don’t respond because every Category 1 storm before that has had Category 5 coverage? They won’t evacuation, they won’t prepare, they won’t respond. We know that perfectly good reputations and careers have been destroyed by this kind of ratings-first coverage. We may soon find that more than careers have been lost.