Hurricane Irene Conspiracy Theories

Skeptics doubted the media, with good reason

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at the reaction to the local news coverage leading up to the arrival of Hurricane Irene, but I was.

Social media was pregnant with skepticism.

Dave Ernay from Exton wrote on Facebook, “this storm—like most we see—is being excessively hyped by the media for the purpose of keeping people glued to their TV sets. It’s going to rain in most of the tri-state PA/NJ/DE area today and tomorrow, perhaps very heavy rain, but it’s not going to be the catastrophic mind-blowing event that we are being led to follow.”

It was the same up and down the coast. Chris Varricchione (@Chrisverks) from Boston wrote on Twitter, “Sad to live in an age where getting ratings for a hyped storm is more important than the public good of the people.”

The ugly accusation echoed for days over the Internet: The media was purposely hyping the storm for ratings and profit. From that mistrust grew a conspiracy theory that teamed TV stations and networks with corporate America and the government in an attempt to jump-start the economy. As if a three-day spike in flashlight and Pepsi sales at Wal-Mart and Acme on the East Coast is really going to get us back on strong economic footing.

But what the tweets and posts exposed was a general mistrust of the television weather reporting. #Boywhocriedwolf and #ChickenLittle were trending topics on Twitter. In Philadelphia, “The Storm of the Century” was a reason given time and time again for skepticism. I was anchoring at NBC10 when the decision was made to promote the coming Storm of the Century on the last night of ratings, even though it was five days out. The storm that never arrived did extensive damage to the credibility of weatherman John Bolaris and local TV news.

To be fair, Bolaris (now at Fox 29) was just the most glaring example of weather hype for ratings. Ever since local stations got research that most viewers tune in for weather, they have spent millions on Doppler Radar, meteorologists and graphic packages. It is often one of the meteorologists who attempts to rein in the hyperventilation of the newsroom over a few flurries, but to no avail. Every small storm that was blown out of proportion with teases, promotions and misleading video cost a thin slice of trust until there was little left.

So last week when a massive storm was headed for one of the most populated areas in the world, the skepticism was expected. Local news stations are paying for the weather sins of the past. TV news anchors had the unenviable task of saying, “This time we really, really mean it.” On Twitter a man appropriately self-named @J_cynic wasn’t buying it. He tweeted, “If you compared a weather map of Irene to the hype about Irene, you’d see the hype has a farther-reaching destructive path.”

But this time the cynics were wrong; for this time the “hype” was appropriate and probably saved lives. This time it was the TV critics, led by Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast, who were irresponsible for lamenting that Irene didn’t live up to its billing because it didn’t hit New York as hard as expected, forgetting that areas north and south of the media center are still devastated. Irene killed 24 people, left five million without power, caused massive flooding and billions in damage. Exactly how many would have to die for Kurtz and the critics to believe that the coverage was warranted?

Still, there are media lessons to be learned from Irene. Local TV stations do need to amend their coverage. Not for the next hurricane, when the “hype” is warranted, but for the next small storm, when it is not. Perspective is the key to earning back credibility lost.

Larry Mendte writes for The Philly Post every Thursday. See his previous columns here. To watch his video commentaries, go to Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter @LarryMendte.