When you ask whether Hurricane Sandy was over-hyped on the East Coast, the answer depends on whom you’re talking to. For those from hurricane-prone areas, the answer would probably be yes. But for most New Yorkers who have little precedent or established protocol to use as reference, it’s fair that a little extra panic drove the tone in news coverage. And of course, with 33 hurricane-related deaths already on the records in the United States, any question of whether it was over-hyped should probably be rendered null and void.
But, I was nonetheless shocked when a friend of mine, who had stayed up-to-date with all of the storm coverage, told me the storm was worse than she expected. It was bad, certainly — I heard of cars actually floating away downtown, and seven million people were without power. There was a fire in Queens that took as many as 80 homes, the subways were flooded, and life was essentially paralyzed in New York.
But I wondered what the media or state and local officials could have done differently to emphasize the seriousness of the storm, if there were people who were shocked by the magnitude of it. I saw headlines warning of “Frankenstorm” since Friday. I saw the dire warning from the National Weather Service. Connecticut Governor Dan Molloy called it “the most catastrophic event that we have faced and been able to plan for in any of our lifetimes.”
I think I found my answer, though, in another trend I noticed in the hurricane coverage. There seemed to be a lot of acknowledgement from meteorologists and state and local officials that people were expecting exaggeration. Weather Channel meteorologist Stu Ostro was perhaps the most quoted example: “History is being written as an extreme weather event continues to unfold, one which will occupy a place in the annals of weather history as one of the most extraordinary to have affected the United States. … This is an extraordinary situation, and I am not prone to hyperbole.” This quote stands as fairly representative of a lot of media coverage of the storm. He exhausted himself emphasizing the deadliness and seriousness of the storm, and then had to go even further to make sure no one was writing off his warning as typical over-blown media brouhaha.
If coverage like this did one thing, it revealed that the media is well aware of the dangers of its own fondness for sensationalist news. It is not unusual for us to express frustration at the over-the-top reporting and penchant for drama that characterizes today’s 24-hour news coverage. The Newsroom is an entire TV show premised on that frustration. But it’s more serious than that. The constant inundation of panic desensitizes us. After Hurricane Irene, New Yorkers were wary of the apocalyptic language that was of course employed to warn us of the dangers of Sandy, and it caused a lot of us to brush off the storm’s seriousness.
The media has important responsibilities with events like Sandy, and I don’t think any of the news coverage during Sandy was gratuitously extreme because, well, it needed to be extreme. But it should concern us that papers were saturated in headlines about Doomsday for a week, and most of us are still surprised at how serious it actually was. A study found that only 50% percent of people were likely to evacuate if it were recommended, but 75% would do so if it were mandatory. That a recommendation would be taken seriously only by 50% of people during an event like Sandy should demonstrate the dangers of insensitivity that come with being bombarded by the constant sensationalism of today’s news coverage.
The media’s problem in conveying the seriousness of the storm was not that they didn’t use forceful enough language or dire enough warnings from public officials. It was that they use the same panicked tones too often. It is common to express annoyance at this kind of hype and exaggeration in the media. The exhausting horse-race coverage of the 2012 election is just the latest cause of news fatigue. But Hurricane Sandy has demonstrated that this constant frenzied state is not just annoying; it’s dangerous.