Viewpoint: Irene coverage shortchanged viewers with sensationalism

By Joshua Madden
A&E Editor

As someone who once lived in New York City and now lives in Texas, I never would have guessed I would be the one who could successfully avoid a hurricane while my friends in New York City would spend the weekend preparing for a natural disaster.

New York City, if it faces a natural disaster at all, is likely to deal with a snowstorm, not a hurricane named Irene. So, understandably, the fact that Irene was headed right toward New York City was big news and generated a lot of attention in the media.

But was the attention justified?

Even before the event, several people on Twitter were joking that Irene looked as if it was going to be an event comparable to “Carmeggedon” in Los Angeles.

For those of you unfamiliar with “Carmeggedon,” Los Angeles officials shut down a major stretch of highway in the Los Angeles area and publicized the event and made careful preparations to minimize the potential damage. The event turned out to essentially be a non-event, with very little negative consequences actually occurring.

If anyone is going to be overcautious, emergency-support officials are probably one of the best groups. Katrina showed us the potential for damage when emergency-relief personnel do not prepare for the worst.

Coverage from the media – all major cable news outlets in particular – seemed more exploitative than anything else.

Many of the events surrounding the storm were certainly big news, like the subway system shutting down in New York City, potentially leaving millions of people stuck in their homes as they awaited the end of the storm.

Much of the coverage, however, seemed to place far too much of an emphasis on the commentary of others instead of actually providing useful information.

The lack of transportation options affected millions of people in the New York City area as well as other metropolitan areas, for example, but outlets like Fox News and MSNBC seemed to predominantly exaggerate the impact of Irene.

Areas with minimal flooding – at least in terms of hurricanes – were labeled as dealing with “major flooding.”

All of this, of course, while the subways were still shut down and millions of people were essentially stuck in their homes.

If I had been watching the news in New York and had sat inside, waiting the all-clear from cable news outlets to go outside, I would probably still be sitting inside. This storm was not as bad as other hurricanes that America has dealt with in the past and instead of praising the officials who did a terrific job of preventing damage to their citizens and cities, television news continues to focus on the damage that seems to have largely been avoided.

In no coverage surrounding Hurricane Irene did the media fail more than in post-event coverage. This should have been largely positive news – focusing on the fact that there was minimal damage to people and property – and instead it came across as mainstream reporters trying to desperately to find a story where there was not one.

Journalists are responsible for informing the public in an honest and straightforward way. While one of the most essential responsibilities of successful journalism is the need to inform people of potential danger to their lives, journalists often seem to forget that they also need to inform people responsibly in order to prevent panic.

Overblowing the damage done in any situation, particularly a natural disaster, can have profoundly negative effects on large numbers of people. Hopefully a major disaster will not hit the New York area again anytime soon, but there is little doubt people will remember how much the media exaggerated Irene and decide to stick it out.

These people will not listen to officials like Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was proved on this event to be remarkably competent. The media will then criticize Bloomberg and others when the disaster does more damage than it should have because people ignored his advice.

But I think we know who will really be to blame.

Joshua Madden is a graduate student in information systems from Olathe, Kan., and the Lariat’s A&E Editor.