Superstorm? Maybe. Superhype? Definitely.
There is no question the damage left in Hurricane Sandy’s wake is worthy of attention-grabbing headlines.
“Whatever is not flooded is on fire” is about as descriptive as they get, as is “Sandy’s wallop leaves Northeast reeling.” And if you live in any one of the dozens of neighborhoods in around New York City that is still underwater, there probably aren’t headlines large enough, or dramatic enough, to describe your personal circumstances.
But are these headlines, and the countless other Sandy-inspired end-of-times pronouncements, anything more than media-hyped distractions from the reality of the event?
As the storm began its drive up the Atlantic coast, the news media’s affection for hyperbole seemed more energized than Sandy herself. Jonathan Karl of ABC News, covering the presidential campaign, referred to the hurricane as “the storm of the century.” Even as Sandy’s barometric pressure was heading down, CNN’s news blog pushed the hype pressure up, “Superstorm Sandy’s toll: Mounting deaths, historic destruction, stranded residents.” The Washington Post joined in with “Hurricane Sandy Wreaks havoc throughout East Coast.”
Sandy-related tweets were flying faster than the storm’s central winds, making sure we all clicked a link to see “Amazing NASA satellite photo” of the hurricane. And as long as science was being invoked, we got this from the Silicon Valley Mercury News, “Could Hurricane Sandy put climate change back on the radar?” New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, during an interview the day after the storm, said, “These are extreme weather patterns. The frequency has been increasing.” And newsroomjersey’s headline was a pull quote from New Jersey governor, Chris Christie: “Devastation to Jersey Shore Unthinkable.”
There were the usual political outliers taking advantage of the storm: from the Examiner, “Romney vs. Obama vs. Sandy: ‘Act of God’ helps Obama save face as he loses polls;” and there were the Hollyweird headlines, “Lindsay Lohan tweets for calm ahead of Hurricane Sandy.” And, my favorite so far, from CBS12 News, “Hurricane Sandy Unearths Bones From Ancient Indian Burial Ground On Hutchinson Island.”
What is lost in all of these overblown headlines and selectively-pulled quotes is a sense of journalistic balance and objectivity in the face of genuine disaster. The more of these headlines I read, the more they look and sound like carnival barkers shouting for my attention along a midway chockablock with every form of media outlet. The din of their hawking was louder than the storm itself.
Here’s the news: it was a hurricane—one of the largest in living memory, but probably not the largest. It all depends on “large.” There have been storms with lower barometric pressures and stronger winds.
According to CNN, “The superstorm has also wreaked financial havoc.” No, not necessarily. Sandy’s damage was widespread, but, once all the costs are totted up, it may not be the most expensive. Economy Watch’s chief U.S. economist Paul Ashworth, said, “Hurricane Sandy will undoubtedly hit economic output in the short-term. (But) some of that output will be made up before the end of the current quarter, and when we factor in the boost to GDP growth from the cleanup, the overall economic impact is likely to be very modest. The upshot is that, when we consider the cleanup activity, the overall impact on GDP growth could even be positive.” That’s havoc? Hardly.
It was a killer; but not as deadly as others. Not by a long shot. More than 1,800 people died in Katrina; 2,500 in the Lake Okeechobee storm of 1928; 256 in Camille in 1969. The Great Galveston hurricane of 1900 is estimated to have cost 8,000 lives.
Some perspective is needed. I know that is little comfort to the families and communities suffering the loss of loved ones and neighbors along Sandy’s path, but it is incumbent on the news media to dial back the inaccurate, often wildly off-target, reporting that accompanies weather extremes and human-caused disasters.
Perhaps Sandy-consumed editors should take a moment and consider this media-related hurricane coverage analysis:
“At this time the media, the research community, and the nation as a whole still do not know with any degree of certainty what actually did happen during the hurricane and in the terrible days that followed. However, we emphasize that even though many questions still remain unanswered, and indeed may never be definitively answered, the images conveyed by the media during that turbulent period left indelible impressions on the public and also provided the justification for official actions that were undertaken to manage the disaster….Moreover, the media vigorously promoted those images even though media organizations themselves had little ability to verify what was actually happening in many parts of the impact region.”
Words of wisdom from a 2006 article in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science titled, “Metaphors Matter: Disaster Myths, Media Frames, and their consequences in Hurricane Katrina.”
So here’s the question that should be on the minds of every editor, reporter and headline writer pushed to the wall by the Impatient Generation: Do we need to get it now, or do we need to get it right?
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