Hurricanes and the narrative of tragedy

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

We in the media get blamed for a lot. It's our job to start discussions, to instill debate and get the electorate informed about what's in the public discourse, what's on the docket for the legislature and what's new and interesting in the world. Basically we give you what you want, what you should know and what's going to cost you money.

But when we cover controversial topics, we sometimes get labeled as instigators, especially by those in power, and in that instance, it's a good thing. But recently, many members of the media have been blamed for their coverage of Hurricane Irma.

Ironically, news reporters and outlets are being blamed for blaming meteorologists for over-blowing the impact of Hurricane Irma. Basically, the story goes, some people are calling out journalists for seeming a bit disappointed that Irma wasn't the catastrophe it was predicted to be. 

Now there are two reasons for that disappointment, if it actually exists at all. First off, journalists have to take meteorologists at face value. We can't know if the storms will be as bad as they say, neither can they, and then we have to deal with the local government's reactions and orders to the public, which we can't really ignore. In Florida, 6 million people were ordered to evacuate. Was that completely necessary? Many Florida residents are returning home to find their home still there. That's an amazing feeling, but some residents felt they could have waited it out, and many did.

The government's position will always be better safe than sorry for concurrent storms. After the devastation of Harvey and the tens of thousands of people without homes or those who are currently gutting their homes to stop the spread of black mold, no politician or emergency official wanted to be blamed for potentially undercutting the danger of Irma.

And there was danger. As of publication, six residents are reported dead due to hurricane-related incidents. More than 356 people were rescued from the evacuation zone, and many still cannot return. 

So the question for disaster reporting boils down to two distinct but important elements. We in the media want you to read and watch our shit. That's how we get paid, for the most part (PBS and NPR in the house!), and so we want to get you information you use, so that you associate us with use. That way, we are useful, you associate our name or brand with that utility, and come to us again. Trust and utility. We have to walk that line, otherwise media consumers will get numbed to any kind of sensationalist thing we put out in the mediascape. We must balance sensation with relevance and utility.

That's why we can get a little miffed when storms are overhyped, both by meteorologists, government officials and other news outlets, and many reporters definitely put themselves in danger when reporting on storms.

I went out during Tropical Storm Irene here in New England as a reporter, and I'll admit it wasn't that bad. It was an awesome experience though, and I can see why many reporters head out to dangerous weather events to report on them. It's kind of like driving around the city at 4 a.m., it feels like you own the streets, because you're one of the few on them.

I remember that feeling when Hurricane Bob hit in 1991. I was five, and my folks threw a hurricane party, because we're Massholes and we don't really care about the weather, unless we're shoveling snow everyday for more than a month. That's the most we complain about. Suck it, not New England. 

Anyway, I was five out in a hurricane – by myself mind you – and it wasn't earth-shattering. I didn't fly away or get pelted by power washer-speed water, but I did get that feeling of owning the streets. It's a good feeling, and Iggy Pop does a good job of portraying it in his song Passenger (sorry if it's stuck in your head now).

So that's what I think we chase when we chase storms, not anything truly negative. It's our job to report people in trouble, but sometimes people think that means we take more pleasure from bigger and bigger tragedies – that we get off on other people's suffering. 

While I think in some specific cases, that's a fair assessment, I don't think it's even close to most of us. We're out there so you don't have to be. We're out there for you to laugh at and watch our suffering in the storms – getting battered and blown away – because if everyone did it, people would die. We also generally get a lot more practice driving around in and getting blown away by storms. 

There's also the tragedy narrative. It's a paradigm that has been fleshed out since news reporting has been a thing. It generally goes prediction (if possible), coverage of event, coverage of aftermath, and then what should have been done to prevent it (Captain Hindsight! We need you!).

It's an easy habit to fall into, and it does desensitize us to the personal loss of each person involved in any particular tragedy in some ways, but regardless of how we might feel, it's still our job. 

I'll never forget when the Marathon Bombing hit. I was a local news reporter in the southwest of Massachusetts. My boss called me up and said I was responsible for reaching out to the house of every runner from our region to see if anyone had been reported injured or killed. That was the toughest thing I've ever had to do. I must've talked to about 20 frightened children, parents and family members before I got through the list.

It was heart-wrenching experience, but it was my job, and not the worst thing in the world, in retrospect. The media can do a lot worse, and in that way, first responders have some of the hardest jobs in the world. A couple of my friends are EMTs, and according to them, they are completely desensitized by violence.

And as off-putting as that might be to hear on my end, I understand it. It's necessary to do the job and save lives. We all do what we have to do, in our own way, to get the job done. 


"I'm pulling for you, we're all in this together"

- Red Green