Hurricane Irene: Why hurricane hyperbole never goes out of style
Where should the media draw the line between reasonable warnings and fear-mongering? A few mistakes and a partially missed prognosis aren't necessarily proof that the media blew the story.
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If authorities struggle with getting the balance of forecast and warnings right, a few mistakes and over-representations from the media are understandable, says Leonard Steinhorn, professor of communication at American University.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Hurricane Irene
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“There's really nothing negative about the media erring on the side of public safety,” he says, “But on the other hand, the media love these sort of dramatic, exciting stories, they love the visuals of reporters sitting out there rain-drenched with wind blowing through his or her hair – it's excellent visuals, and it's a visual medium.”
And the stakes are, in fact, sky high: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been trying to move over 300,000 people away from low lying areas in the city. Entire areas of the New Jersey coast are devoid of people. At the same time, the eye-popping predictions – including a $35 billion estimated price tag for the storm's damage – have been built on the assumption that the storm would come ashore as a Category 1 hurricane rather than a tropical storm, a distinction that's likely to be debated in the aftermath.
“The reduction in storm intensity likely confirms that this storm is not going to be as monstrous as it has been publicly forecast to be,” wrote Dr. Simon Atkins, the CEO of Advanced Forecasting Corporation, on Friday afternoon.
So what happened? Given concerns about the safety of tens of millions of people along America's most populated coastline, goes one theory, some forecasters may ultimately have heeded forecasting assumptions and official concern about the storm strengthening over the reality on the ground.
“The public needs to understand that sometimes they want scientists to give them such accurate information and with incredible confidence, and one of the things science needs to do is say, 'This is our best prediction, but also here is the uncertainty associated with it’," he adds. "That way people can make their own decision on what they want to do with that uncertainty in a threat like this. At the same time, it's always better to be safe than sorry in a major severe event like the landfall of a hurricane.”