The term “news cycle” connotes coverage of an event, followed by reporting on reactions to the earlier reports by prominent figures and the general public. With the advent of cable, the proliferation of channels, and internet alternatives to broadcast and print media, the process has both accelerated and intensified.
Here in the United States, coverage of weather hazards has not been immune. And it seems that the news cycle in these cases – hurricanes and winter storms especially, but also tornadoes, floods, drought, etc. – boils down to this: Hype. Blame. Repeat.
We’re just coming out of the latest instance: the nor-easter that pounded New England earlier in the week. Much of the area is shoveling out from under 2-3 feet of snow, dealing with the aftermath of storm surge that battered coastal areas, restoring power to darkened neighborhoods, attempting to reboot the air-rail-roadway transportation infrastructure, and loosening emergency restrictions placed on the public at the start of the storm.
Hype. News coverage in the run-up to the storm was breathless, non-stop, and ubiquitous. National, regional, and local media were all over the story. Reporters interviewed everyone at federal, state, and local levels of government as well as private-sector leaders who would bear any responsibility for the weather forecast or for the emergency response.
To many in the general public, the intense coverage may have come as a relief. In the days prior, an equal amount of hype surrounded another low-air-pressure event: the New England Patriots and Deflate-Gate. Surely an actual storm, threatening a big fraction of America’s population, was a better claim on our attention than the tempest-in-a-pigskin that had preoccupied us earlier.
But to many others, the hype was noxious. Here’s an excerpt from a typical media response, posted by Nick Gillespie on Time.Com (you can find the full piece here):
“So there was no Great Blizzard of 2015, or Snowmageddon, or anything more than a routine dumping of white stuff in mid-winter over a godforsaken region of the country that people are already leaving in droves.
The predictions for a Northeastern snow and ice storm of biblical proportions — if the Bible had snow, that is — just didn’t happen. Apart from a few Twitter jokes, what lessons should we draw from this latest media-driven anticlimax?
At the top of the list: Can we shut up about weather for a while, especially weather that is totally in keeping with the seasons in which it’s taking place? It’s only 2015, but it seems like we get storms of the century about every three to six months. Our parents famously walked three miles (uphill both ways, mind you) in sub-zero and scorching temperatures in shoes made of detergent-box cardboard while also mining coal and smoking unfiltered cigarettes by the carton. And here we are, snug in our all-wheel-drive vehicles and Gore-Tex weather wear, demanding work and school be canceled on a 40% likelihood of snow flurries…”
Blame. Of, course, since the event, media attention has been apportioned between the storm’s aftermath in New England and the finger-pointing and a few mea culpas in New York and points south (you can find just a few samples and the smallest handful of links to a much larger universe of stories here). Some of the attention focused on local political leaders. A contribution from Frank Bruni (We Dodged Icy Doom. Let’s Gripe), published in Wednesday’s New York Times, was more forgiving than most. Here are extended excerpts:
“You can’t be a Monday morning quarterback on something like the weather,” Bill de Blasio said right after the snow.
Oh really? On Tuesday morning we hurled second guesses and grievances the way Tom Brady tosses an inadequately inflated football.
By “we” I mean not just us New Yorkers, who were promised the icy end of the world and then forced to make do with something less dramatic, but also all of those who gazed upon the city, state and region and gleefully joined a chorus of instant complaint.
We grilled de Blasio, wondering if he might be using an emergency — and his role as responder in chief — to shake off that nastiness with the police and turn the page.
We put Andrew Cuomo on the hot seat, noting that as long as he was gasping at the possibility of a record-breaking blizzard, he didn’t have to deal with the actuality of jaw-dropping corruption on his watch.
And we marveled that Chris Christie was even present in New Jersey. He spent months gallivanting around the country collecting i.o.u.s for a presidential campaign, then thundered home just in time to close roads and prophesy disaster? What a storm queen.
That’s one perspective, and a sizable share of the cynicism is warranted. These guys are showboats who always preen and play the angles. It’s called getting elected.
But before we reflexively shovel too much censure on them, let’s get a few things straight.
None of them hallucinated those forecasts of two feet (or more) of snow, nor did they cherry-pick apocalyptic ones. Meteorologists and broadcasters aplenty tripped over their adjectives to describe the frigid horrors in wait for residents of the northeastern United States.
Our politicians heard what we heard, and the same tidings that had us picking grocery-store shelves clean and standing in epic checkout lines had them cordoning off bridges and tunnels. Everyone braced for the worst, which is a whole lot smarter than hoping for the best…
…And it was indeed a bad storm. In New England, people did get several feet of snow. They also got that much in areas of Long Island that aren’t all that far from the New York City border, as the mayor noted at his news conference on Tuesday…
…imagine if all the snow predicted had arrived and scores of motorists were stranded. We’d be asking those nannies why they’d abandoned us, and we’d be looking for their replacements.”
However, much if not most of the criticism was directed at weather forecasters and the National Weather Service. This discussion has largely centered around presentation of uncertainty. For its part, and much to its credit, the NWS at national and local levels and to varying degrees of formality has issued mea culpas.
Hype. Blame. Repeat? Do you and I hate this cycle? Do we want to get off the hamster wheel? Then we need to pay more attention to root causes. Investing more in Earth observations , computing power, and social-science massaging of the forecasts and warnings is cost beneficial and will help. But these measures by themselves are not enough. The core problem is America’s chronic, pervasive weather vulnerability.
To see this, put your focus for the moment not on weather extremes, but on “a perfect weather day.” Not too hot, not too cold. A bit of rain (if needed), but otherwise sunshine and fair-weather clouds. Not much there for the broadcast meteorologist or the political leader/policymaker to work with, is there? Hard to say much more than “it’s a great day. Get out there and enjoy it.”
When we build weather resilience – when through land use and building codes and attention to the continuity of critical infrastructure such as roadways and the electrical grid and water supply, etc. we reduce the ways nature can hurt us – we expand the range of what constitutes “a great day.” When as a nation we’re truly prepared, everywhere, for whatever nature may throw our way, then forecasters, emergency managers, political leaders, the media, and the general public don’t need to over-warn or over-react as a safety measure.
That resilient circumstance is where hype and blame go to die.
The National Weather Service can’t achieve this Utopian ideal alone. Resilience to weather extremes and other hazards requires national priority as well as balanced attention at the grassroots, local level. It can be accomplished only community by community. That’s why the NWS has started a program by the name of Weather-Ready Nation and it is inviting all of us to join in.
Let’s accept that proffered hand.