How we could cover storms

On Twitter, I’ve been ridiculing the #stormporn in coverage of #Irene: the predictable and numbing repetition, alarmism, and idiocy that is TV. Of course, the storm is serious but the coverage is often laughable and, some would argue, a matter of crying wolf. The inefficiency of the coverage is also boggling: crews everywhere, all shooting the same wind and water, yet saying nothing new.

But obviously, there are many new, more efficient, more informative, more level-headed ways to cover a storm such as this. It’s all only a link away.

CNN iReport and FoxNews amusingly named competitor uReport as well as many media sites post pictures and videos from witnesses. Given the opportunity, witnesses can also provide much more detail. When I oversaw, the publisher of the Time-Picayune got us to put up forums so residents could share information about flooded roads. Those same forums were used in Katrina to alert officials to rescue people trapped on roofs.

There is all kinds of data available. There are great maps showing the progress and strength of the storm. Talking Points Memo points to a bunch of outage maps from power companies.

There is much information available directly from governments and their agencies. New York City’s 311 service and site give updates and resources and we can watch the mayor directly on the net. Jen Preston at The New York Times compiled an impressive list of officials using social media to get their messages out. The Wall Street Journal visualized evacuation centers using Foursquare.

Much of the most important information — the forecast — comes from the same sources, such as NOAA and its hurricane center.

And I’m barely scratching the surface of sources of direct information.

So the question the journalists should ask is how they can add value to that. That is the the question must ask constantly now that information can be exchanged so easily and instantly from officials to citizens, data sources to users, and witnesses to witnesses. It’s an everyday question, not just one for emergencies.

Journalists don’t add value by repeating themselves endlessly, but standing in front of random but ultimately uninformative sites where their cameras and trucks happen to be set up (or worse, in the water), by alarming more than informing people.

So how should they? As in some of the example above, they should aggregate and curate reports from witnesses and data from officials. They can visualize data. They provide background and service information. But mostly, shouldn’t reporters report? Standing in the water repeating what we already know over and over is not reporting. Reporting would be finding out what government is not doing — see Katrina. But in truth, with all this information flying by, we don’t need a lot of reporting unless and until government messes up. That’s what is making journalism more efficient and sustainable.

Oh, and journalists and TV networks could still afford a few minutes an hour to deliver real news. While Irene moves up the coast at 14 mph, storms of another sort are still overcoming Syria and Libya, both of which might as well not exist on supposed news networks today. Is that journalism?

  • On CNN a few minutes ago they flashed a map of NYC showing the zones, but you couldn’t see any detail. Great. There was some actual data, something that could be explained. Instead they went back to the usual mindless pictures of idiot reporters risking their lives to stand in water and get blown around by the wind.

  • What really annoys me is that the media feel compelled to report on this to the most silly detail (and get it all totally wrong all) and then on the other side of the planet there is Typhoon Nanmadol causing untold damage and deaths to a population that lives in complete abject poverty compared to those in the “Burbs” of NYC or elsewhere down the very pleasant Eastern Seaboard.

    It is time the media got perspective before they lose the last remaining grains of credibility they have!

  • Barbara Iverson

    I’ll be sharing your post with with my students next week.

    In addition to Syria and Libya, Japan’s Prime Minister resigned and the Mayor of Seoul has resigned. At home in Chicago, we have upcoming G8 and NATO summits in the spring and there lots of backgrounding and reporting to do.

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  • Baxter

    Yes, the media coverage of Irene has been horrible everywhere– endless hype, fear-mongering, and ignorance… even as this mild hurricane has now passed NYC with no major impact. Mayor Bloomberg was the real catastrophe (and real news story) in needlessly shutting down the world’s greatest city.

    TV “journalism” hasn’t changed since Dan Rather stood out in the rain in the 1961 Galveston, Texas hurricane… getting wet.

    Of course, the objective isn’t journalism– it’s merely to get viewer eyeballs on TV screens to sell stuff.

    Expecting anything close to professional journalism from the likes of CNN, NBC, FOX, ABC, etc. is an absurd presumption.

  • Chris Lawrence

    Was just told to not go outside in Brooklyn by CNN for fear of “Extreme puddles”

  • Gregory Schultz

    The one item I’m afraid of now that the storm has passed is because of the hysteria coverage of Irene that people will dismiss future hurricanes that threaten the area.

    Their reasons: members of the media kept telling that certain sections were going to flood, it didn’t and the evacuation was not worth it, rather an inconvenience for two to three days.

    This was the same story here in New Orleans after several hurricanes threatened the city: evacuation orders were given, traffic was a nightmare (20 hours in traffic and only traveled two miles), storm changed course before landfall to hit either the MS Gulf Coast or Southwest Louisiana, massive traffic jam entering the city and thousands of dollars *wasted* (their word) on hotel rooms, food, bottle water, gas, etc.

    The same story was said after Hurricanes Andrew (92), Georges (99), Lilli (2002) and Ivan (2004).

    Then Katrina came in 2005.

    When Gustav hit in 2008, people (including local governments) took the storm very serious and started evacuating people one week before the storm made landfall.

    The point I’m making: media hysteria does have an effect on people and hopefully people will take the next storm serious: be it a tropical storm or a Katrina.

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  • In the media POV, Irene is just a sweet candy they can live off effortlessly for a while. aside from the warning which comes from government they barely report anything essential.

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  • nhguy

    Don’t we have better things to think about?

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  • I think the best metaphor for the media’s ridiculous storm hype was Tucker Barnes getting drenched in raw sewage on live TV.

    TV news is particularly lame when it comes to covering weather events. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to live in the South and have your regular programming pre-empted by weather “news” because there are tornado warnings. That doesn’t mean tornados aren’t serious, but they are pretty localized and there’s no excuse for denying thousands of people their programming because a small town in a remote region of the viewing area is facing a weather event. Yes, TV news has an obligation to inform the public of dangerous weather events, but there are other ways of doing it. Split-screen, the famous “crawl,” etc.

    I realized how useless the local weather reporters are during the Nashville floods of May 2010. The floods were devastating but all the local weather bots showed us were Doppler Radar color blobs floating across a map of Middle Tennessee. Twitter had links to live YouTube videos of streets in my neighborhood with cars floating in them. I learned from Twitter to stay home that day … I learned from the TV news that East Jesus, TN, was getting a little wet.

    I know that this is all about ratings, that covering weather is easy and has that sense of urgency the news craves, but can be done from in the studio with their fancy maps and gadgets. But it doesn’t inform people of what they need to know and it borders on the sensationalist. I’ve learned to turn it off.

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  • Thanks for summarizing all the Options to Monitor such Life threatening events through the various information Channels. I now got the idea From your post how to setup my Personalized News/Information Room. Just Relying on TV Broadcast is Not enough.

  • And don’t forget journalism isn’t just for humans anymore. At StatSheet we’ve been “reporting” on College Basketball and now MLB (e.g. through our publishing platform that automatically converts stats into prose. Software journalism is just as viable (and in some cases better) than human journalism for certain types of coverage.

  • (sorry, posted that last comment to the wrong blog article)

  • Hey – nice blog, just trying around some blogs, seems a reasonably nice platform you’re using for I’m currently using WordPress for a few of my sites but trying to vary one in every of them over to a platform like yours as an endeavor run

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