Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Hello, I'm a Reporter. May I Scare the Shit Out of You?"

Hurricane Irene hit New Jersey on Sunday, a Category 1 hurricane with 60 mile per hour winds, storm surges and torrential rains. As I sat huddled in my basement Journalism Bunker and Global Command Center, urine dribbling down my right leg and hyperventilating into a Dunkin’ Donuts bag in the throes of a panic attack, I wondered why I was frightened.

Then I remembered; I watched the entire hurricane play out on local television news.

The Philadelphia news stations had round the clock coverage of Hurricane Irene as she flew up the eastern coast, dumping rain, causing tornadoes and creating more havoc than a 200-megaton nuclear bomb. Watching the meteorologists and weather reporters on TV painting a shitty picture of widespread chaos and disorder, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they interviewed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

TV reporters engaged in a choreographed circle-jerk of pathos and destruction that made a weather event seem like one of those mental indoctrination “Duck and Cover” films of the 1950s.

The poor bastards reporting live, wearing ponchos and standing on the Boardwalk, blasted by torrential rains and buffeted by a typhoon, can’t be taken seriously.

“Well, Don, as you can see behind me the 20-foot wall of water breaching the dunes and flooding the entire town makes the Japan tsunami look like a trickle of beer piss. I’m holed up in a hotel without electricity and things are pretty bad. Pretty bad indeed. We’ve resorted to cannibalism like in that ‘Alive’ movie. We gnawed off the cameraman’s leg. It’s only a matter of time before the entire eastern seaboard drowns in this thing, Don. Once again, a reminder that humanity is only the mere playthings of a wrathful and vengeful God.”

Philly TV reporters have a fetish for death and destruction. They pray for the worst scenario at any given time because it means pictures of dead bodies, carnage and destroyed buildings. They can hone their acting abilities by staring at the camera and feigning concern.

Because Hurricane Irene turned out to be a dud in the southern New Jersey shore, there’s nothing to exaggerate or inflate for ratings. The doom and gloom train is derailed and the pathos party over.

“Don, I’m standing on the Boardwalk during the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. Unlike Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there aren’t waterlogged corpses floating through the town, nor are there any widespread instances of looting or vandalism. We do have a few uprooted bushes though, and somebody scraped their finger trying to open a can of Mr. Pibb. We will bring you that shocking story after more stock footage of tornadoes and euthanized kittens.”

By deliberately ramping up the situation and over-saturating the airwaves with pandemonium, they create a frightened population of jittery sheep. If the situation is bad, tell them. If an expert predicts a storm will be bad, tell the people that with attribution. Just don't stand in a puddle of water and tell people of a theoretic deluge.

Emergency management officials made a good call telling people to evacuate Cape May County. But telling the public if they choose not to evacuate, to "write the names of their next of kin on an index card and put it in your shoe" isn't productive. Scare tactics can have the opposite effect.

The one place this frenzied fervor didn’t thrive was online. Social media sites and instant messaging such as Twitter and Facebook gave people living in the hurricane’s path a way to communicate with each other and exchange information without a filter.

Those who remained shared their experiences online with evacuees. Reporters from the local news affiliate, NBC40, provided updates through social media sites.

Public disdain for traditional media continues to increase, and with it, distrust and skepticism. Traditional media outlets prove they are obsolete and can’t deliver unvarnished accounts when such reporting matters most. Idealistically, reporters should tell the public what is happening, free of embellishment. Prognostications of a horrible cataclysmic storm when the reality doesn’t match do a disservice to a public already edgy and nervous.

When the storm was over, we learned Irene killed 42 people and caused $7 billion in damage in the United States. Most of the deaths were caused by falling trees and inland flooding. In New Jersey, seven people were killed. Cape May County suffered no fatalities or severe damage. Instead of the 14 feet of water forecasted, Hurricane Irene sped up before high tide, sparing the New Jersey coastline. Random luck we dodged a bullet, and the damage could have been much worse.

In the storm’s aftermath, the sun came out, temperatures warmed and surfers headed to the beach to ride epic waves. TV stations turned their attention northward, to the severe flooding in Vermont and Massachusetts.

Because when there’s a hint of a disaster, there’s always some schmuck with a microphone and camera to scare the shit out of us.

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