Why TV news is addicted to weather porn

When it comes to storms, TV news sticks to the script -- no matter how cynical, exploitative or cliched it may be

By Matt Zoller Seitz

Published August 29, 2011 12:30PM (EDT)

NBC reporter Peter Alexander attempts to broadcast from the windswept Coney Island boardwalk in New York as Hurricane Irene became intensified Sunday, Aug. 28 2011 in Coney Island section of  New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle (Craig Ruttle)
NBC reporter Peter Alexander attempts to broadcast from the windswept Coney Island boardwalk in New York as Hurricane Irene became intensified Sunday, Aug. 28 2011 in Coney Island section of New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle (Craig Ruttle)

In case you thought the TV news business wasn't well aware that it thrives on fear, a local anchor confirmed it during Hurricane Irene coverage yesterday morning. Chuck Scarborough, the anchor of local New York affiliate WNBC, was talking about the importance of evacuating the coastal Manhattan neighborhood of Battery Park City even though, by that point in the Irene narrative, it was clear that the storm wasn't going to hit the city as hard as some experts originally thought. When Scarborough finished talking, his guest, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, joked, "I thought I was just listening to the Oracle of Doom."

"We're in the news business," Scarborough said wryly. "We deal in doom."

This becomes vividly clear during the run-up to big storms -- especially storms that threaten to make landfall in New York City, North America's media center. The motto of all news, TV news especially, is "The worse the better." Informative, detached, rational coverage is a snooze-fest and a ratings bust. Weather porn is ratings gold.

Plus, as news stories go, storms are in a special class, with unique potential for exploitation.

Most catastrophic events strike unexpectedly and get reported on after-the-fact, when afflicted citizens and government workers are literally picking up pieces and news organizations are mainly concerned with finding out precisely what happened. Storms are all about what might happen -- a narrative of dread that unfolds over a period of days. It's a perfect setup that lets TV news organizations ratchet up the freak-out factor incrementally, and position their teams where they think the most spectacular and terrifying images might be.

Thus the array of news teams stationed at Long Beach, N.Y., Saturday night and Sunday morning, treating minor damage at a seawall and moderate street flooding as if they were harbingers of a tsunami -- and the countless, mandatory live shots of reporters in rain slickers and hip waders positioned all over the Atlantic coast, hollering into cameras, their feeds cutting in and out until anchors gave up and moved on to another wind-battered live shot. (Fox News Channel's coverage Sunday morning was the worst, with frequent, awkward drop-outs. That roaring you heard wasn't Irene's winds, it was anchor Shepard Smith's blood pressure rising.)

Viewers and TV news columnists have been mocking this cliché for decades now, labeling it irresponsible and dumb. Really, what's sillier than a TV news reporter who has no defensible reason for being outside during a hurricane warning viewers that there is no defensible reason for being outside during a hurricane? But nothing changes, because dread-inducing storm coverage is a profit-maker, and the formula always works.

News directors aren't just aware that the shrieking-into-the-wet-lens routine can lead to comedy or tragedy; even the more outwardly sober ones are secretly praying for such moments because they're considered "great TV" -- wild incidents that viewers can laugh about on Facebook and revisit on YouTube. (Hurricane Irene coverage produced at least two of those moments: the guy showing his wang in the background of a Virginia Beach, Va., live shot, and the Washington, D.C., reporter getting covered in raw sewage that he mistakenly thought was "sea foam.")

Even when TV news organizations can plausibly claim to be doing everything according to the unwritten Good Media Citizen Handbook -- constantly repeating safety tips and evacuation schedules, referring viewers to the websites of the National Weather Service and the Hurricane Center, and so forth -- the overall tenor of the coverage still edges toward fear-mongering and surreal slapstick.

The Weather Channel, which prides itself on being a somewhat rational, science-centered, responsible organization, goes nuts during storm season, and lets correspondents and anchors lard their on-air copy with menacing hype words; Jim Cantore used the phrase "impending doom" on air, and Carl Parker warned of a "slow-motion disaster." Some of the language made it sound as if the storm were a living entity that had a personal grudge against the East Coast. On Saturday evening, when there were already inklings that this would not be another Katrina, I heard a local ABC anchor say, "Hurricane Irene still has New York in its sights," as if it were a genocidal tripod from "War of the Worlds."

And on Sunday morning, when Irene had been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, you could see some anchors and correspondents struggling for ways to make things sound as bad as possible. I saw an ABC reporter stationed in Belmar, N.J., ask a resident if he thought this storm was as destructive as Tropical Storm Danielle back in 1992. The man replied somewhat vaguely that yeah, it might be as bad, maybe; driving away, the correspondent made it sound as though the man's answer had been an unequivocal yes.

Different reporters might have different, very subjective reactions to the weather based on where they're stationed and how experienced they are; one person's storm of the century could be another person's "meh." My friend Danny Bowes, a Brooklynite who stayed put during the storm and watched a lot of the coverage, observed, "It's interesting how CNN and MSNBC have very different views of Hurricane Irene in New York City. MSNBC's guy on Coney Island says he's never seen anything like this, and picks up a piece of [flotsam] floating down the sidewalk to show how fierce the winds are. CNN's woman on the scene, however, notes that the rains are vertical and 'not the kind one would associate with heavy winds.'"

Newspapers and Internet-only news organizations are guilty of hype, too, but TV news is a different animal, and its excesses are of a different order of magnitude. TV news is not supposed to be processed in bits and pieces. It's designed to keep you mesmerized for hours with an endless series of voluptuously frightening images and worst-case scenarios. It's Cassandra in a box.

Here's the tricky part, though: Because hurricanes always cause deaths, injuries and massive property damage, media organizations can defend themselves by saying it's better to make things sound worse than they are, because if you give people false hope or encourage complacency, the outcome could be far worse. Parse their word choice or criticize their decisions on what to show and how to frame it, as I'm doing here, and you're written off as just another whiner in the peanut gallery. As I write this, many on the Atlantic coast are still stranded far from their homes, or assessing damage that could take months to repair. And some are making funeral plans.

("At least 19 people were killed in various storm-related accidents from Florida to Connecticut, and the death toll was expected to rise," the Los Angeles Times reported. "In Harrisburg, Pa., a man sleeping outside with a group of friends died when a tree fell on his tent, police said. And up to four million power customers, fairly evenly scattered along the hurricane’s path, still had no electricity on Sunday afternoon. Across the length of the hurricane’s path, hundreds if not thousands of roads remained closed. In New York, authorities reopened tunnels and bridges but the city’s public transportation system remained shut down.")

"Consider if there are five competing hurricane forecasters, four suggesting evacuation while the fifth says 'stay put,' and the fifth one is wrong," wrote Patrick Michaels of Forbes. "Surely most people would choose to stay, with disastrous results." After Hurricane Isabel in 2003, a local news director groused to me, "Well, what would you have us do? Tell people to just go on about their business because everything is probably gonna be fine?"

That's a "When did you stop beating your wife?" type of question, granted. But it does complicate this little screed, and I confess that I still don't quite know how to answer it -- except to note that 1) the language and imagery of hype doesn't really add anything useful to storm coverage, and 2) recent technology offers new ways to get news without having to watch weather porn.

Frankly, if I wasn't required to watch TV storm coverage as part of my job, I probably wouldn't have turned it on at all, except to check in on the local cable news outlet New York 1, which offered mostly hysteria-free news tailored to people in my area.

I tracked the storm's progress on the National Hurricane Center's website. I found recommended "go-bag" contents, evacuation orders, mass transit shutdown reports, hurricane survival checklists and other pertinent information online hours before Irene made landfall in North Carolina. And I was able to fine-tune the information Friday and Saturday by checking Facebook and Twitter, where I learned that you should not light candles during storms (in the event of a busted gas line) and that if I still needed batteries, water or other supplies, some of the smaller shops in my neighborhood still had them.

This skein of dry facts and fellowship might have sustained me, at least until the electricity and phone lines went out.

As my friend Patrick observed, "Anticipating weather outcomes is not a useful pursuit for talking heads." 

Matt Zoller Seitz

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