On one 24-hour news channel, a correspondent described the calm before hurricane Irene as the calm before a B-movie zombie attack. One anchor proclaimed the storm to be “as big as Europe.” Elsewhere, the hurricane was touted as the storm of a lifetime.Having been through a hurricane-like storm -- winds up to 120 mph -- I certainly understand the importance of a good warning system and the need for caution. We didn't receive adequate warnings in 2007 and our storm caught a lot of people completely off guard and unprepared.
Storm hype is of course nothing new, neither is saying overwrought things when trying to fill up hours of airtime.
But as the hurricane approached, the fever pitch of the Irene coverage took on a life of its own, with government officials leading a chorus of caution even as closer watchers of the weather, especially on the ground in North Carolina, grew increasingly convinced that Irene would not strengthen, but steadily weaken instead into something closer to a massive tropical storm.
~ from Hurricane Irene: Why Hurricane Hyperbole Never Goes Out of Style by Patrik Jonsson ~
But in this world of 24/7 information, there is a temptation by the mainstream media to oversell storms and other major news events to drive ratings through the roof. Bigger ratings mean bigger market share and bigger market share means bigger profits.
Take, for example, The Weather Channel. Not surprisingly, their bread-and-butter focus is on...the weather! Catastrophic weather events are good for ratings. If the storm peters out, then ratings (and profits) go down. So, it makes sense that The Weather Channel would play up any potential major weather event even when they realize the risk may have faded somewhat.
The same is true for a 24 hour news channel like CNN. When there is little news of any import, they still must babble on. Again, it makes sense for the company to play up ANY news story they can get their hands on. If CNN can create controversy -- even where none initially existed -- they attract more viewers.
I am not suggesting that Hurricane Irene is a piddly news event. People have already died as a result of the storm, electric power is out for millions and there is certain to be millions of dollars in property damage. All I am saying is that this singular event -- like so many others before it -- was made to sound far worse than it actually is turning out to be.
Part of the shrillness of the reports most likely is due to being overcautious. However, I think that lurking behind the scenes is the ever-present profit motive. A storm advertised as bigger than one could imagine is a surefire strategy to convince people to tune into your TV channel or website.