Tuned In

The Freakout Before the Storm

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After a welcome vacation and a less-welcome hurricane-related flight cancellation (which, luckily, set us back only a day), I’m back. Kind of! Like the New York metropolitan transportation grid, Tuned In is gradually and fitfully restoring its regular schedule. Expect delays, scattered outages and surly, grudging customer service in the interim.

Hurricane Irene was the big media news of the week that I was out of the country,* and the media is now covering whether it overcovered the storm. Because I was on vacation (either away from a screen altogether or with irregular wifi service most of the time) I can’t comprehensively assess the coverage here in the U.S. as a critic. But I can make a few observations as a tourist—worried about whether my Sunday flight would be canceled and whether my Brooklyn home would be floating in the Gowanus Canal when I got back—who got most of my news via Web and Twitter, then hunkered down in front of the hotel TV Sunday morning to see if NYC was getting blown away.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints that in the week the storm hit, the media overhyped the possibility of a “monster storm heading straight for New York City.” I wouldn’t be surprised, though I’m not the best judge, since when I had a chance to get online I was seeking out news selectively—namely, searching for something along the lines of “Is a monster storm heading straight for New York City?” And I’m willing to cut anyone slack—in media or government—for reacting to the possibility of a catastrophic strike that could not be predicted with 100% certainty. (If there was too much emphasis on the danger to big East Coast cities maybe that explains the underemphasis on the danger to more rural areas, where it looks like the worst damage was.)

But as I watched Sunday morning, it seemed clear that the TV coverage I saw was doing what it often does: putting the scariest face possible on a storm that turned out not to be as scary as feared. (Caveat: my hotel, like much of Central America, had Sky TV satellite, which gave us Fox News, HLN and some of the major networks, but not CNN, MSNBC or The Weather Channel. Hence, I missed, among other things, the TWC streakers, above. NSFW, I guess.)

There was shot after shot of reporters in city centers doing their best to turn the storm into The Day After Tomorrow. One guided the camera to a shot of “dangerous flying debris” in midtown—literally, a small pile of twigs and umbrellas, which basically looked like any Manhattan streetcorner after a thunderstorm. One did a man-in-the-street interview in a not-too-rainy Philadelphia with a passerby who looked like he was going out to get bagels. Another—in lower Manhattan, where there had been predictions of a deadly “wall of water”—pointed out dramatically at the “floodwater,” which was up to her ankles, at high tide. The handful of scary video shots—big waves in a New Jersey marina, a oceanside shack crashing against a boardwalk—looped over and over and over. It was disaster by editing, and once I saw that, I knew, gratefully, that Brooklyn would still be standing by afternoon.

I’ve heard the defense that Irene was, after all, a deadly storm, and that the media had a responsibility to make sure that people didn’t dismiss it. That’s a very good point—if you’re running a city or state government trying to batten down and hold evacuations. If you’re in charge of public safety and disaster planning, you have an obligation to err on the side of the worst possibility. But if you’re covering a storm, you have an obligation to err on the side of reporting what is actually happening—or, as important, not happening—not to cherrypick the visuals that make for the best TV.

As I said, I didn’t see enough of the walkup coverage to judge it overall, so I’m curious what you all thought. And I wonder how much of the “overhyping” is something the audience contributes too—certainly much of my pre-hurricane “news” was people in my Twitter stream re-tweeting the most dire disaster scenarios or the most dramatic pictures from North Carolina. When Katrina hit in 2005, I was on vacation too—in Maine, without an Internet connection, TV or radio reception—and I didn’t know New Orleans was flooded until I saw a picture in a newspaper in Belfast a day or two later. It’s hard to imagine being as detached from the news almost anywhere, in 2011 with smartphones, wifi and social media—all of which help us amplify the news.

So those Tuned Inlanders who were around last week, you tell me: did the media overhype the news or did its audience? Both? Neither? And those of you who were in the storm’s path—let us know how you’re doing, and how well your local media did by you.

*(I have a bizarre talent for being on vacation or out of touch when something strikes New York: I was in Michigan for the Christmas blizzard, in Costa Rica during the hurricane and last week’s mini earthquake, and when a tornado hit Brooklyn last year, I was underground on a subway and totally oblivious. Mayor Bloomberg, I will accept a $5 million annual subsidy to never leave town.)