Monday, August 29, 2005

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Open hurricane porn thread

CROW-EATING UPDATE: The post below was written 24 hours before the waters of Lake Ponchatrain broke through the levee, devastated New Orleans, and video footage came in on damage to the Mississippi Gulf coast. I must concur with James Joyner that the coverage of this hurricane was not overhyped in the end, and at this point is a rather trivial issue compared to the damage at hand.

I maintain that my general point stands on extreme weather coverage, but not with this case. Whether there is a "weatherman crying wolf" phenomenon taking place is also worthy of further thought.

Click over to FEMA's list of charities to help out those affected -- or even better, Glenn Reynolds' list of charities

Comment away on Hurricane Katrina -- or even better, the coverage of it. If this report is any indication, the original estimates of potential damage appear to have been overstated (though the New Orleans Times-Picayune has a different take). This is of small comfort to rural residents of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, but better news for oil traders -- who appear to have panicked and then reassessed -- as well as consumers.

This overestimation would be consistent with the growing problem of hurricane porn:

This kind of coverage was understandable with regard to a titanic bastard of a storm like Allison [a 2003 hurricane--DD], but it was only the latest in the local networks' long-standing pattern of milking every possible bit of fear and suspense out of viewers at the approach of tropical weather systems. It hardly seems to matter that computer models are roughly as accurate as a Ouija board while a storm is more than 48 hours out, or that storms like Allison are rare beasts indeed, for these days our doughty weatherpersons breathlessly report every developing tropical depression as if the End Times were upon us. Coverage increases in intensity until the tension is almost to much to take.

I call it "hurricane porn."

First, there's the foreplay, which (unlike in actual pornography) can take several days. It starts with Doppler radar and satellite images that grow progressively larger and, dare I say it, more tumescent as the system approaches the coast. Cloud cover grows and the winds pick up, and most TV stations will have reporters positioned along the coast in areas projected to be in the storm's path. These hardy souls eye the camera with come hither looks of dire urgency (I wish I could find screen captures of local ABC reporter Jessica Willey standing on a pier in Galveston during Claudette's rainy approach wearing a soaked-through white blouse - more than ratings were rising that evening, let me tell you). The anticipation continues to build in this fashion until landfall, which is where you get...

Hot hurricane action: water crashes furiously over the sea wall, palm trees whip back and forth in an orgiastic frenzy and street signs waggle suggestively in the wind. Meanwhile, the rhythmically swaying area street lights almost seem to keep the beat for the omnipresent frenzy. This is the period where one sees the most pervasive coverage. TV stations will often interrupt regular programming in order to cut to live shots of their other reporters, who can be found "braving" the storm by standing right in the middle of the heaviest wind and rains. Speaking only for myself, I'd have a lot more respect for a newsperson who did their report from a bar, sipping a beer and leading off with, "You know, you'd have to be a real idiot to be outside on a night like this..." Maybe someday.

Fortunately, the actual hurricane footage can only last so long, as most systems weaken rapidly once they make landfall. This is why television stations are so desperate for that money shot. You'll know it when you see it: a roof flying off a department store and disintegrating, or one of those aforementioned reporters getting blown into a ditch. If the networks are really lucky, they'll get film of a fireman rescuing a baby from a rooftop, or a woman pulled from her car just before it's covered by rising floodwaters. After something like that, you can't help but feel spent.

Once the storm has blown inland, you can finally bask in the afterglow: blue sky shots of boats beached thirty feet above the tide line, hapless shmoes sweeping water out of their bedrooms, and the weatherman telling us it "could've been worse." That's when you light a cigarette and compare property damage with your neighbors.

I'm waiting for the NOAA to extend hurricane season by a month and a half so it can include May and November sweeps.

I think this blogger actually underestimates the problem -- it's not just local news, it's the cable nets as well. See Michelle Catalano for more.

Readers are invited to submit the most.... er.... pornographic moment of coverage they've seen to date.

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds believe that Katrina was worth the hype. And several commenters have pointed out that the blanket coverage probably saved lives in convincing people to get the heck out of the Big Easy. Valid arguments.... except I've been so inured to prior hurricane porn that it's now tough for me to distinguish between a genuine menace to mankind vs. some weathermen breathlessly claiming that some tropical depression could be huge.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Alas, I spoke too soon about New Orleans.

posted by Dan on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM




Comments:

This morning I watched Anderson Cooper get blown around on top of some kind of platform overlooking the gulf. His reporting to the audience: the wind is really strong, it's raining really hard, the waves are quite big and appear to be causing some kind of water buildup (flooding!) in the parklot visible from his elevated perch. The desk anchor pleaded with him to "be safe". Although, if he'd really cared he would have suggested that he stop making idiotic comments in the middle of a huricane and go inside.

posted by: Jason on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



On a blame it on the market note. I was up in Newport for my sister's graduation from the Navy's OIS program and my uncle spent most of the time checking his laptop every hour (and driving around looking for free wireless) to receive these mountains of unchanging data on Hurricane Dennis.

Porn is a good word for what he was engaging, it had no discernable content but provided enough titaliation to induce a kind of obsessive slack-jawed excitement. Unlike real porn, I have a hard time understanding the draw, but it obviously gets a significant number of people off and the news networks see fit to package and hype it.

A not particular interesting observation---hurricanes are the only natural disasters that can produce anticipation, the hallmark of all thrillers and horror films. Earthquakes, tornados, etc. all come on suddenly so there is no "foreplay" possible. Maybe hurricanes have the same draw that daredevil stunts, high-wire circus performers, and your average NASCAR race does---the possibility of disaster creates a voyeuristic tension people find satisfying.

On some dark level, there is probably some disappointment when the destruction fails to live up to expectations.

posted by: Jason on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



The coverage may have been porn, but the hype was of real concern. If the storm had been a little stronge, and passed over somewhat closer/slightly differently, the flooding would have been immense.

A major hurricane to New Orleans appears to be the local equivelent to an 8.0 in San Francisco, with the effects of a storm surge on a city diked on 3 sides with a lot below sea level. That it turned out to be more of a 7.0 should be major rejoicing, but it looked like the possibility was pretty grim last night.

posted by: Nicholas Weaver on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Not too hard to tell the author of this post lives in the Chicago area, is it?

Every time the Bears play the Packers, Chicago media know pretty much what is going to happen. They cover the game anyway. In the same way though with a better excuse, I imagine media coverage of hurricanes looks a little different to people who might actually be in a storm's path or know someone who is. If reporters go overboard in their pursuit of visual images, well, so what? You think Anderson Cooper is going to be doing deep thought pieces on outsourcing or the future of the Thai monarchy if he's not out with a cameraman in a hurricane? At the worst the product is repetitive images one might not feel the need to see -- if not, don't watch.

Incidentally the level of potential damage from this storm was not overstated. New Orleans got lucky, in that it avoided a direct hit from Katrina and the storm weakened somewhat just before coming ashore. And, timely warning of Katrina's approach amplified by wall-to-wall media coverage prompted many thousands of people to get out of the way. Porn indeed.

posted by: Zathras on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



I guess the appropriate answer to the purveyors of this smut can be heard on this clip from Fox News. Here's a transcript. Hi-larious.

SHEPARD SMITH: Youíre live on FOX News Channel, what are you doing?
MAN: Walking my dogs.
SMITH: Why are you still here? Iím just curious.
MAN: None of your fucking business.
SMITH: Oh that was a good answer, wasnít it? That was live on international television. Thanks so much for that. You know we apologize.

Courtesy of Prawfsblawg .


posted by: geoff on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



If the U.S. would show a little more respect
for hurricane's they wouldn't attack so often.

Humble. Be more humble.

They ask for so little.

posted by: James on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Why are there not major casualties in New Orleans right now? Because something like 80 percent of the population got the hell out of Dodge. Sure, some of the coverage was over the top, but if that's what it takes to get people to safety, more please.

The time to evacuate New Orleans is long before anyone knows if there will be a direct hit. In the decision-making time frame, there were reports that made it look stronger than Camille, and much bigger. Picture a tornado 30 miles wide.

That it didn't hit the city is luck, pure and simple. And the responsible thing to do is get people out of the way, because once the evacuation window closes (i.e., the bridges to LaPlace, Mandeville and Slidell become unsafe to drive), all that's left is hope. While that may be the present administration's plan for the occupation, it's still no way to run a railroad, or a major US city.

posted by: Doug on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



A year or two ago, as Florida was being hit by a slew of hurricans, a cousin (by marriage) of mine made the honest comment that those people of Florida must have done something that made God really mad. Perhaps getting too excited over the hurricane porn triggered the divine revenge?

This is more the moment that kills even the [brand name enhancement drug] as the story morphs into one that ends with a "oh, how sweet" and a kiss on the top of the head. But anyways . . . (sorry, Prof.)

My dad's power in Baton Rouge has stayed on throughout the storm (the worst damage seen by any of my family or friends in there is a downed tree). Around 12:30 or 1:00pm, he reported, the newscasters had driven down to where the waters began to wash over the interstate. As the camera showed expanse of flooding, a car drove into the waters, was lifted, and began to float away.

The reporter dropped his mike and ran immediately after it, putting a hand on the car to slow it down, and finally opening the door and coaxing an elderly man to leave the car. After he successfully walked the man back to safety through the flooded and the man calmed down, he was, of course, interviewed.

It was a stupid mistake to drive into the flood. With all the rain on his windshield, he hadn't seen that the interstate was itself covered. Excellent save by the reporter.

posted by: Amanda Butler on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



In nearly every weather story since Dan Rather bravely faced down Hurricane Andrew, I would agree wholeheartedly. But sometimes, the hype is justified. And when Katrina's barometric pressure fell below Camille's, the hype was justified. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

When it strengthened to a level that exceeded every storm the past 70 years, it's not hype.

You chose a good topic to write about. But you chose a poor time to complain about it.

posted by: Don on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Yeah i may have contributed to the hurricane porn. But with massive casulty and damage predictions, who could blame me? This wasn't a 8.0 NOLA missed, but a 10.0. Anyway i probably won't ever get this excited about a hurricane, but I doubt I'll ever see something this strong in my life.

posted by: Rob on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



I agree with your point on other hurricanes, but not this one. I remember one hurricane hitting the Virginia Beach area a year ago. They all showed a picture of a tree that fell down, but it was the only one that fell. Then there were guys on television acting like they were getting blown away when other people were walking normal past the camera. This hurricane was worth the hype.

posted by: John on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Forgive me, but this is rather humorous considering we can count on a good "the dollar is falling! Head for the hills" post at least bimonthly hereabouts.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Dan, next time a hurricane is in the vicinity, I'll buy you a ticket to fly down so you can sit on the beach and blog about how over-hyped it is.

Last year, I went through three hurricanes in six weeks. The first, and worst, was Charlie. Approximately six hours before the eye went over my house, it was supposed to miss us buy about 100 miles. Following the "porn" turned out to be the smart move. (And as for being over-hyped, it torn the roofing off of half the houses in my neighborhood, and we're 80 miles inland.)

Katrina came onto land with 145 mph winds. And up until about two hours before it got to New Orleans it looked like it was going to hit Lake Ponchartain directly, which likely would have breached the levies and flooded the whole city. That's according to studies by various government agencies, not some yahoo reporter on a cable network. As it is, they're reporting 40,000 homes are flooded just east of the city, and New Orleans might be without power for well over a month. (Given what we went through in Florida last year, that doesn't sound at all like an exageration.) And remember that they got the weak side of the storm!

In Mississippi they're already reporting six dead, and now doubt that number will climb, as they haven't gotten to the hard hit areas. I heard about one town that was under 10-12 feet of sea water from the storm surge. The town in question was over two MILES inland.

Another datum: The area of hurricane force winds for Katrina was bigger than the whole system for Charlie. The area of hurrican force winds covered an area around 34,000 square miles. Those winds gave the storm the energy needed to push megatons of sea water several miles inland.

Now, explain to me again how this was over-hyped? Or is it only over-hyped because it's not directly affecting you, so fuck all those assholes in the path?

What the hell is wrong with you people in the middle of the country that you don't know how goddamned dangerous these things are? Katrina killed several people in south Florida when it was a weak category one storm.

Currently it looks like the next liekly storm is about two weeks out. Again, I make the offer to fly you down so you can experience one of these things up close and personal. Then maybe you'll understand that these storms are not to be taken lightly, asshole.

posted by: Icepick on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Seen on one of the local broadcast station's webcast slightly paraphrased.

Weatherman: Hurricane winds as high as 150 mph, in addition to the fact that it is moving to the north at 15 mph, makes this effectively a 165 mph hurricane!

posted by: craigl on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



And let's look at this snippet from the entry you quoted:

It hardly seems to matter that computer models are roughly as accurate as a Ouija board while a storm is more than 48 hours out, or that storms like Allison are rare beasts indeed, for these days our doughty weatherpersons breathlessly report every developing tropical depression as if the End Times were upon us.

These systems can actually turn quite suddenly, less than six hours from impact. Last year Charlie hit land 150 miles south of where it was supposed to. That change occured just about six hours before landfall. So maybe the computer models are that good when it's close either.

Also note how FAST Katrina strengthened. Up until about 48 hours before it hit, they were projecting that it would be a weak category three at most. And then it blew up into a storm packing 175 mph winds. Fortunately it was so big and relatively slow moving that it weakened down to a mere 145 mph when the outer edges started hitting land, the friction caused weakiening the storm a bit. Of course, that just allowed it to plow more water into the gulf coast.

But the point is that no one knew one Friday or Saturday that this thing was going to be this kind of monster.

Given that these storms are subject to very rapid changes, both in intensity and in direction, perhaps it makes sense to treat each one seriously ahead of time, right? Perhaps just being on standby a few days ahead of time is a smart thing to do, right?

Oh, I guess not. After all, an IR professor in Chicago and his snarky online cronies must know all about these things. What the hell else could any of the rest of us know that you guys couldn't dismiss out of hand because your arrogance tells you that you know better than everyone else about everything else? And if a few dozen people get killed, and tens of thousands of homes get destroyed and billions of dollars are lost, it doesn't really matter, right? Right?

posted by: Icepick on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Professor Drezner,
you are under-informed (in this case).

The National Weather Service does not issue warnings like this for other hurricanes:

"Urgent Weather Message from NWS New Orleans

WWUS74 KLIX 281550NPWLIXURGENT - WEATHER MESSAGE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA

1011 AM CDT SUN AUG 28 2005


DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED

HURRICANE KATRINAA MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED STRENGTH...RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969. MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS...PERHAPS LONGER. ATLEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL...LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY DAMAGED OR DESTROYED.THE MAJORITY OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS WILL BECOME NON FUNCTIONAL.PARTIAL TO COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE IS EXPECTED. ALL WOOD FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED.


CONCRETE BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE...INCLUDING SOME WALL AND ROOF FAILURE. HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY...A FEW TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. ALL WINDOWS WILL BLOW OUT. AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD...AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY VEHICLES AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILL BE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATEADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS...PETS...


AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK. POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS...AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING...


BUT BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED. FEWCROPS WILL REMAIN. LIVESTOCK LEFT EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL BEKILLED.AN INLAND HURRICANE WIND WARNING IS ISSUED WHEN SUSTAINED WINDS NEARHURRICANE FORCE...OR FREQUENT GUSTS AT OR ABOVE HURRICANE FORCE..


.ARECERTAIN WITHIN THE NEXT 12 TO 24 HOURS.ONCE TROPICAL STORM AND HURRICANE FORCE WINDS ONSET...DO NOT VENTUREOUTSIDE!LAZ038-040-050-056>070-282100-ASSUMPTION-LIVINGSTON-LOWER JEFFERSON-LOWER LAFOURCHE-LOWER PLAQUEMINES-LOWER ST. BERNARD-LOWER TERREBONNE-ORLEANS-ST. CHARLES-ST. JAMES-ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST-ST. TAMMANY-TANGIPAHOA-UPPER JEFFERSON-UPPER LAFOURCHE-UPPER PLAQUEMINES-UPPER ST. BERNARD-UPPER TERREBONNE-1011 AM CDT SUN AUG 28 2005"


Note that this was the warning this morning, after the storm shifted. Sunday night and very early Monday morning, weather forecasters gave a 70% chance that the levees in New Orleans would overflow and the French Quarter would be under 20 feet of water. The pumping system is designed to remove rain, not massive storm surge.

You need to read some of the "hurricane porn" and not just the critics. Would you read Joseph Stiglitz but not Jagdish Bhagwati?

posted by: Joseph on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Dan, you really blew this one. When you have
Category 5 hurricane bearing down on the single
most vulnerable city in the country, you should
increase the hype. As it is, not everyone got
out. I hope that you don't feel like a complete
jerk later this week (that is, I hope there
are "only" a few dozen dead).

posted by: Matt Newman on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Icepick: You're at least partly right. Chill a little, because so is Dan.

What you say makes a lot of sense if the coverage is for the Gulf Coast. I've lived down there and have some little appreciation. It doesn't explain why CBNBABCNFOX have to send reporters down to get images to titillate people like me, eight hundred miles from the nearest salt water.

There really are people who slather over televised disasters, anxiously watching for that roof to blow away, preferably with a baby clinging to it. "Hurricane porn" fits that case pretty well. There are also people who are morbidly fascinated by blood&guts from car wrecks, which is why the other side of the freeway moves so slowly when one happens, and why "when it bleeds it leads". (Apparently not quite as many such people as the newsies expect; the ratings are dropping.)

Nobody thinks that the people who are in harms way shouldn't get adequate warning, phrased hysterically if that's what it takes to get them to get off their butts and help themselves. But somebody in Seattle who is anxiously following every gust and raindrop of a hurricane in the Gulf is indulging in hurricane porn.

Regards,
Ric

posted by: Ric Locke on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Well, that's just great, Ric. You're saying that they should undercover the story because someone somewhere might be getting perverse pleasure out of it. Perhaps the networks shouldn't have covered 9/11 because some people got pleasure out of it? No, that's not what you meant? Well, then what did you mean? Because using your standard nothing other than the sports scores could be covered. Oops, I guess not. We all know how much some people love it when somebody loses....

posted by: Icepick on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Um, if you can sit through all of what the mayor of New Orleans said this evening, or the body count that's coming later this week, and tell me that the "hurricane porn" wasn't justified:

http://www.wwltv.com/perl/common/video/wmPlayer.pl?title=www.wwltv.com/082905mayor.wmv

Most people stay based on past experiences - the near misses. While "hurricane porn" serves as filler until the storm ends, it was drawn out in this instance because no one will be going back any time soon -- listen to the mayor.

In a decent world, you would be asking the media how to step outside of your bubble and physically offer assistance in one of the largest humanitarian disasters ever to hit the nation. Actually, you would done so before the storm, to assist people who had no choice but so leave so dumb FOX reporters wouldn't be bothering them with racially patronizing questions as they ponder their homeless future and next meal. Hope the next blizzard's a bitch...though a power outage would be more appropriate. I'll look forward to the snow porn.

posted by: NHL on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Sensationalism is the name of the game. It is not empathy which leads them to cover such disasters. It is pure greed, to get more viewers for the show.

What we need is true news. Adequate coverage for natural disasters is fine. However live covereage of hurricanes serves no purpose. It could be substituted with repeated warnings in the affected areas. And the rest of the country could be spared. But then when has newscasters thought about the intellectual side of a human. You cannot milk it. Its only the emotional side you can milk and they know how best to leverage it.

posted by: Angsuman Chakraborty on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



I'm sorry, what's wrong with porn?

This is part of a larger trend in media: loudness. Every event must be magnified a million times louder because apparently the average viewer is too stupid to understand the significance of something unless he/she is pummelled with it (note: sarcasm). Hurricane coverage is no different than the Plame Game, the Cindy Sheehan brouhaha, or the Air America scandal (although that pummelling is limited to the blogosphere since the msm appears to be ignoring it); the latter three, in an earlier age (read: before 500 channels and the Internet) would've been single sentence quotes buried in the back of a comprehensive news article. Instead, we're subjected to constant hyperbole. Any why? Ratings. Ad dollars. Or, in the case of the blogosphere, overinflated sense of self-worth and the superiority of one's ideas.

At least in the case of hurricane coverage, there is potential good in screaming. So while I understand the concern against hurricane porn, we have to realize it is, again, part of a larger phenomenon.

And it sure beats hearing about what Cindy Sheehan had catered for lunch yesterday.

posted by: chrth on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



The product of news organizations is not news. It is you. They sell you to advertisers.

Whatever it takes to hold the audience is what they will put on the air.

It's a mistake to think that people are not disgusted by the news. They don't expect most people to watch, but only the fairly large minority that's reliably drawn to such crap coverage. It's big enough to pay the bills and comes every day whether there's news or not, so long as there is soap opera; which is what the genre is. It isn't porn.

The drawback is that every national debate is governed by this soap opera minority. I suggest ridiculing the audience, to shame it out of existence. The media are the ones acting rationally : if the audience will come, we will sell it.

posted by: Ron Hardin on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Interesting analogy, but I think "Crying Wolf" would be a better one.

I followed the coverage in a somewhat obssesive way (e.g. why did the traffic cam images stop updating Saturday night? Wouldn't up-to-date pictures be helpful when trying to decide how to get out?).

However, I've also been the subject of such coverage. In Fort Collins, CO a couple of years back there was a flood. Spring Creek, which one can normally step across, flash flooded. There was some damage. There were some injuries. It made the national news sounding as if Fort Collins had been swept away. While I had four feet of water in my basement, I, and my neighbors, were in not in deadly peril. After seeing the national news, my mother called the Red Cross to find out if I was dead. It was so minor I hadn't even thought of calling anyone to say I was OK.

In this case, the dramatic coverage seems to have been justified. In many cases, it's not.

posted by: mrsizer on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



As a long-time resident of Houston, I think this is a good analysis of TV Overkill in hurricane coverage. To the extent it pushes people to leave before a storm like Katrina, it is good, but I have to agree that most of what we get is grandstanding nonsense--it is like crying "wolf" over every little tropical depression, so that when a serious storm such as Katrina hits, many people are desenthesized to TV coverage and don't take it seriously enough.

Ever since Dan Rather was "discovered" by the networks for his excellent coverage of Carla in 1961 while he was a Houston TV reporter, every TV reporter has to get in the middle of every storm, hyping the coverage to the absurb.

Incidentally, "Allison" was not a hurricane--it was a Tropical Depression that passed over Houston once and we thought nothing of it--then it stalled in the Gulf and came back. There were never any serious winds, but an incredible amount of rain in a very short time that left much of Houston under water. It caught the whole city by surprise--unlike a hurricane which gives advance notice of its arrival. I know--I tried to drive the short distance from my office to my home on city streets and the water came up above the headlights on my Lincoln.

Every storm should be taken seriously--and that is just the point of the above post--local and cable (and network) "news" persons acting like buffoons do not help the process of educating the public.

posted by: dtb on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



The media aren't trying to warn people. They're trying to hold audience.

The warning genre is a good audience holder.

The hard-news posturing is marketing. ``As you can see, you are a serious audience concerned with serious things.'' The soap opera audience likes that.

Most people are disgusted. They're not the target demographic, is all. Their various interests are not widespread enough to target.

It's the marketing that the news media are participants in a serious analysis of anything that has to be debunked.

They're not, they never were and they never will be.

posted by: Ron Hardin on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Dan,

Are you upset because the constant reports like this stopped? "A bomb exploded in Baghdad today, and X number of people were killed because President Bush is an idiot."

Do you really think that massive destruction is not newsworthy?

posted by: Ryan Booth on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



One picture I saw, that you don't see every hurricane, was one in Yahoo's news slide-show. It showed a couple of dolphins from the Oceanarium that had been deposited in a hotel swimming pool for safekeeping, much to the delight of the guests.

posted by: The Sanity Inspector on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Particularly with coastal cities, the amount of damage from a hurricane is virtually impossible to predict. If a hurricane happens to hit the "sweet spot," damage can be massive. A bit to one side or the other, and it can seem like a big fizzle.

So forecasters and networks are in a bind here. If they fail to highlight the potential for disaster, then they are at fault for not giving adequate warning if the nightmare scenario unfolds. If we happen to luck out, then they are accused of crying "wolf" and whoring for ratings.

In this case, it looks like the dire predictions were not far off. It wasn't quite the "perfect storm" as far as New Orleans was concerned, but probably bad enough that the evacuation will be seen as a good move. And it is still unclear just how much damage and loss of life there will be along the Mississippi coast, but the early reports sound pretty ominous.

posted by: tgibbs on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Meanwhile, the situation in New Orleans appears to be getting worse.

posted by: David Fleck on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Dan,

Your problem is the same as that of some of the media and many citizens and is the reason that tens of thousands of people are now dead in Louisiana and Mississippi.

You don't understand the difference between a Cat-1 storm with 70mph winds that is largely a nuisance and a Cat-5 160mph monster.

Suggesting that this storm was overhyped is a slap in the face to all of us in South Louisiana who have lost much of what they hold dear.

You owe an apology.

posted by: Ryan Booth on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Professor Drezner, you should be ashamed of this post. I guess the greatest natural disaster in American history isn't sufficient for you as long as it happens to a bunch of Southerners.

posted by: Blue on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



There seems to be a common thread in this thread--namely, those of us who live in hurricane-prone areas knew this was a terrible storm, while others couldn't distinguish the threat from hype. If you're having difficulty because you are

"so inured to prior hurricane porn that it's now tough to distinguish between a genuine menace to mankind vs. some weathermen breathlessly claiming that some tropical depression could be huge"

then stop watching Anderson Cooper et al trying to stand in 100+ mph winds and read the reports from the National Hurricane Center. The "Quiji board" comments above notwithstanding, it was clear 48 hours before landfall that this was going to be a big storm (even a category 3 hurricane is intense) and that it would hit somewhere near New Orleans. So what if New Orleans wasn't washed away Sodom and Gomorrah style? From what I've seen, it looks awfully bad, and I hope friends from my college days in New Orleans are OK.

posted by: conlon on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Ask my co-workers here in Miami, Fl. who had about a 1/2 a day to prepare for Katrina about this issue. Many of them endured 48-72 hours (or more)without electricity.

It's very easy to talk about something you have never 'experienced'. Wait until you actually have the eye of a Cat 1 go over your house and then you can talk about this all you want.

Me, I'll put up with the pontifications, ratings hype etc, because every so often they actually say things that *SAVE LIVES*.

We have had at least 5 deaths due to the use of generators, this even with the news constantly reminding folks not to use them indoors, not near a window, etc.

Sorry, your wrong on this one. One life is worth the headache.

posted by: David on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Come on! This is not hype,this is one of the worst storms we have seen in a long while. Get real. Don't you know a disaster when you see one? Or are you so stuck on the news media thing that you end up postulating as a pseudo-intellectual observer of things. Even a child could have told you how serious the storm was.

posted by: Joan on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



There is such a thing as hurricane porn and to deny that it exists is foolish. In Houston at the beginning of the season we had to endure the media's "The Next Big Storm" and "Could It Happen to Us?" on one of the local TV and radio stations. Pure hyperbole and fear-mongering.

Anyone living on the Gulf knows that a hurricane is just around the corner -- every single season. We want to know when the depressions appear, we want to know when the depressions turn into storms and we want to know the track and strength. Beyond that ANYTHING the news has to offer is fluff. We don't care that there are surfers braving the lead waves of the storm. We don't care that Bonnie Bighair is on the beach where the last storm hit in '09 or '65 or wherever. What Gulf-coasters want are the hard facts and what we should do. Thank goodness for the EBS.

I hope some of you aren't deluding yourselves in thinking that the 500-1000 reporters in New Orleans and the surrounding areas were there to provide a public service... they were there to draw a viewership and hopefully be the first to provide the first voyeuristic images of a disaster in realtime. If the media were trying to be helpful, they would show the evacuation routes and post coordinate and strength data as well as traffic reports on the hour or every half-hour. That is public service. And yes when the Houston local stations send reporters to Florida to report on hurricanes that have no chance of ever showing up in Texas its voyeurism through and through.

My point: distinguish between the useful information and the fluff that is reported. If you look at the ratios, you'll see that there is more fluff than substance. And that is why most of the hurricane reporting amounts to "porn."

posted by: cmw on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Well, the table seems to have turned back on you.

You voice your anti-media objection by saying "...original estimates of potential damage appear to have been overstated..."

No debate at this point is needed. A picture is worth a million words. By viewing the aerial footage at http://www.wlbt.com/ you can easily see the media was damn well on target when stating the POTENTIAL damage.

View the video, be amazed, then have crow for dinner this evening.

posted by: George Andujar on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



To the owner of this blog (Daniel Drezner?):

I was not aware of this blog before today, and this is only the second time I've visited. But if what I've read in this thread is indicative of the entire blog in general, I find little incentive to ever come back.

As I write this (8/30 @ 17:13 EDT) bodies are floating in the streets of New Orleans, but are being ignored by emergency officials because they are placing priority on saving people who are drowning in still-rising waters. 80% of new orleans is now reported to be under water. Not to mention dozens upon dozens of square miles around Gulf Port and Biloxi that have been completely leveled. The overall damage to the gulf coast is being called catastrophic and this will easily end up being the worst disaster America has ever suffered... by far.

And you are ridiculing the media because you think they overstated the potential for damage?

As I mentioned, if this thread is representative of your other writings and posts, I can only say that based upon the unbiased view of a virgin reader, you are a complete fool. No, a BIG fool.

For those who hate blogs, this could end up being a teaching tool used for years to illustrate the potential danger of allowing morons to possess keyboards.

If I were you, I would eliminate this entire thread and its comments. Sure, you would suffer ridicule, but not as much as if you leave it up.

Man. What a fool.

posted by: George Andujar on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



I believe some of you are clearly missing the point.

As a Native Texan with several years logged living on the Gulf Coast my family and I have dealt with many storms over the years Ė Iím not an expert but I understand the danger of hurricanes. Now that Iíve mentioned my credentials to post here Iíll commend CMW on his great attempt to draw a baseline to the topic of hurricane porn. Read his entry again.

That is an absolutely accurate way to portray the behavior of the media during this hurricane. The point that some of you are missing is that footage of roofs being blown off buildings, cars being swept away, etc. shot by Joe Reporter and his camera crew are simply tactics to drive viewership and sensationalism when the viewing audience is most hungry for it Ė when disaster is imminent.

Donít misinterpret the all-out coverage by every news entity conceivable as public service or saving grace. True, the soap opera crowd will respond to this type of coverage (Iím married to a family of them, I know) and some might just say ďGuess we better get the hell out of here, I just saw Johnsonís grocery store blow away on the PhilcoĒ, the same message could be delivered by the Mayor or other civic leaders, the Chief of Police, Captain of the Fire Department, meteorologists, college professors, military personnel, the head coach of the LSU Tigers, or all of the above, with the same results. EVERYTHING BUT THE EXPECTED TIME / PLACE THE STORM WILL HIT AND EVACUATION PROCEDURE INFORMATION IS FOR ENTERTAINMENT ONLY.

Hurricane porn.

No one is saying that the media is not important Ė just the sensationalized hype that it hides behind. By all means give me news, just not hype.

By the way, my wifeís sister and her family from Covington, Louisiana have lost their home and the day care she owned. They are due at my house tonight where theyíll probably stay for weeks. Iím not in Chicago watching from afar like we all watch Iraq. Iím involved.

posted by: texan on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



While I agree that many minor hurricanes are vastly overhyped by the media, THIS one was not one of them. I am from Biloxi and as I watch some of the video (wlbt.com has good aerial video of the entire MS coast), I am struggling to recognize anything amidst all the debris. The Biloxi lighthouse is still standing, and that's about it. The smaller beach towns of Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis are pretty much completely gone with nothing to recognize at all. The death toll is almost sure to rise significantly when all is said and done.

Unfortunately, if there was anything wrong with the media coverage of Katrina, it was in focusing too much on the problems facing New Orleans and not enough on the general strength and size of Katrina and the fact that a cat 5 (which it was on Sunday) is going to do catastrophic damage WHEREVER it strikes - which at that point was predicted to be anywhere from west of NO to Mobile. Many residents of coastal MS saw all the media coverage of NO and stayed in MS because they thought Katrina was headed to NOLA. They didn't realize how bad it would be for MS, even if it did hit NO. Now they're paying the price.

posted by: Cheryl on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



OK let me get this straight. The liberal (I gues Fox is liberal when you don't like what they report) television cabal did what they did and sensationalized. And now because of their bad news the levees have broken?

Is this right? Just like Iraq?

OK I'm a bit puzzled, I can sort of see how the liberal media undermined the government and took control and made sure we made lots of mistakes over there, and I'm pretty sure Rush and Drudge proved Peter Jennings was setting the bombs, but exactly how did the liberal media get control of this storm? Do they have secret powers? From Satan? From the aliens?

posted by: puzzled on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Earlier today I saw a woman who had been holed up in the Superdome telling us how she wasn't too scared until the roof blew off. On one site I even saw a quote used in a headline stating the same thing: that the roof blew off the Superdome. Now, I can only imagine how harrowing that would have to be - to go to a structure called the SUPERdome and have it start leaking. I can also understand a little hyperbole spewing from the mouth of a frightened, stressed out refugee. But it is completely irresponsible and sensationalistic journalims to use that as your headline. Or, as has been pointed out here, it's just hurricane porn. After all, "Roof blows off Superdome!" makes a much better headline than, "Superdome develops leak - everyone okay."

posted by: Gary on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



I would have agreed with the "hurricane porn" assessment, if it wasn't for the fact that this time it was actually as they predicted it would be. As much as I hate the "cry wolf" attitude of the news media, we have to be greatful that they somehow saved lives by overhyping this hurricane.

I for sure agree that this for them is like getting their christmas presents ahead of time. Now they have all this devastation and survivor stories to milk for months to come.

posted by: Lina Maria on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



The reference to porn was the idea that it numbs you to the real thing over time, not that its pleasurable or in this case dangerous. Given the tsunami, it is a wonder the definition of storm surge didn't become synomous with tsunami.This is what was meant by porn.

posted by: Robert M on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Is the coverage of a hurricane any different than the coverage of an american war? the problem is the 24 hour cycle and the need to garner commercial sponsorship. as long as that is the norm the market will dictate that entertainment outweighs actual news.

perhaps the simple 1/2 hour news cast of the mid 20th century combined with well written online newspapers/blogs would ameliorate the problem....i doubt that hurricane/murdered girls in aruba/iraq/monica lewinsky/etc porn is going away anytime soon though....and with TiVo you can pause it...*best homer impersonation* mmmm pause the destruction

posted by: johnnymeathead on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



The media will never report an analysis of anything anywhere that violates the laws of soap opera.

Either before or after a hurricane.

What you're seeing now is the after version of the before.

For a more level-headed reporting, try to hear WWL 870 New Orleans, audible at night over most of the Eastern US. Common sense is still in play there. But they're not trying to hold audience at the moment.

It's one of those deals that will win a broadcasting award, but fail to set a workable example because you can't play it for ratings.

posted by: Ron Hardin on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Does anyone know what damage was done to Laplace LA?

posted by: Steve on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



Dan,

I still don't think you get it. You seem to maintain that you would have been correct if only the levees hadn't broken, as if the massive destruction of the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama coasts wasn't enough to justify the coverage.

In fact, your original post reveals the profound ignorance and arrogance, and you would have been must better off to apologize for posting on something you didn't have a clue about.

By suggesting in any way that coverage was (forgive the pun) "overblown", your post insults the many thousands of dead people who didn't leave because the media didn't do enough to accurately portray the danger from a Category 5 storm like Katrina.

I used to read and enjoy your blog.

posted by: Ryan Booth on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



I'm glad more people weren't hurt, and I'm glad Katrina wasn't more horrible than it was. I'm glad that there may have been lives saved by the media pumping them full of fear. But each of us as individuals would be better off without the mentality that "we should be worrying".
I approve of the ends - saving lives. I don't approve of the means - marketing assholes manipulating our emotional states to boost ratings.

posted by: Marika on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]



WATCHING ALL WEEK OF THE REPORTERS DOING MORE THAN OUR LEADERS-I GIVE THE REPORTERS A-A+,AND OUR HIGH PAID TOP HATS A-(F-),NO REASON WHY OUR SO CALL'D LEADERS-COULD NOT HAVE BEEN DOING WHAT WAS NEEDED-PUT THEM ALL IN THE DOME TOGETHER-LET THEM LIVE THERE FOR A WEEK THE WAY THOSE POOR PEOPLE HAD TO DO.AND THEN SEE HOW THEY ACT-LET THEM PULL THEMSELVES OUT.
THANKS TO ALL THE REPORTERS FOR DOING THEIR JOBS !!!!

posted by: takingastand on 08.29.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]






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