Hurricane Hysteria: Media Fueled Needless Panic Over Irene

It's good to be prepared, but the media went overboard — again — in its coverage of Hurricane Irene

It goes without saying that this weekend has been all-hurricane all the time. Those watching the news have been privy to discussions of everything from how water can move benches to how wind can take down trees. 

In some cases, these stories have ended tragically with the loss of life or destruction of homes.

However, the media — all of it, from broadcast to print to social — generated a hurricane hysteria that overwhelmed what was an unfortunate but ultimately modestly destructive storm.

Few put it better than Gawker’s founder Nick Denton on Twitter: “The real vortex of Hurricane Irene: the feedback loop between mainstream and social media. Hype fueling hype.”

That may seem callous, but it is more defensible than those who blamed social media for riots in London or broadcast media for single-day economic freefalls.

Also read: Hurricane Irene Coverage: A Real Raw Deal (Video)

As news of the approaching hurricane spread, there was understandable fear and, ultimately, shrewd precaution.

While the hurricane has caused serious physical damage along the eastern seaboard, its impact was certainly lessened through governmental and civilian foresight and preemptive action.

For that, many organizations and individuals should be commended. As past traumatic natural disasters have evinced, it is always better to be over prepared than underprepared.

However, the media is not among those that will be waiting in the laudatory lunch line.

It seized on this moment of potential disaster and abject fear, hoping that a constant reminder of the dangers to come would attract viewers or readers (and keep them).

With tens of millions of people stuck in their homes, it remains to be seen how many of them tuned into the round the clock coverage.

What is evident is that the media’s decision to reward those stuck inside with endless images of the storm, analyses of its potential impact and so on, fueled a panic.

Stores ran out of water, food, batteries and flashlights before the weekend began. At supermarkets, bodegas and pharmacies, lines ran out the door and into the street, forcing people to wait interminably for products they may not have needed. People stayed inside all day yesterday, even in places where the storm only hit in the middle of the night.

Again, there is nothing wrong with precaution, but the reaction was one of mania and there is no doubt the media’s non-stop coverage had a large hand in this.

While news outlets must inform the public – it is their job after all — how many stories can one tell about a single, ever-weakening hurricane?

Too many it turns out.

This is not to say that Irene was a small story. It should have played a prominent role in all newscasts, and was worth updates throughout the hour.

The media went beyond this with networks going to 24-hour coverage, Twitter taken over by Irene and even websites for international papers like the Guardian making the hurricane their lead story.

This not only made fear spread farther and faster than it needed but devalued all other news — both across the globe and across the country.

Call it callous, call it curmudgeonly, but the primacy given to one disaster in a world of perpetual disasters – not to mention the lack of interest in more positive stories — has been shortsighted and reinforced America’s ever-deepening pessimism.