Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Did Hurricane Irene live up to the hype? The numbers say yes

The snarky Taiwanese animators at Next Media Animation had some fun with The Weather Channel's coverage of Hurricane Irene.

The Weather Channel doesn't get many viewers when the weather is nice. Instead, the network banks on its major storm coverage. Hurricane Irene gave The Weather Channel its best full-day ratings ever.

New tropical systems are now threatening the US Gulf, including Hurricane Katia, much to The Weather Channel's delight.

Weather Channel reporters are known for turning up the drama, even when conditions are less than dangerous.
Next Media Animation wasn't the only media outlet asking if the Hurricane was overhyped. MSNBC posted an Alan Boyle article titled Experts review the lessons learned from Hurricane Irene
Did forecasters, policymakers and media types overhype Hurricane Irene? It's not just a meteorological question: The debate over whether the outlook for damage was overhyped, or hyped just right, touches upon issues of risk perception and even the climate change debate. Like most natural disasters, Irene's deadly sweep over the U.S. East Coast has left behind some important lessons for researchers as well as regular folks.
Among the questions being asked, the article lists the following:
  • What was right and wrong about storm prediction?
  • Did forecasters overhype the storm?
  • How much was lost in translation?
  • Do more big storms lie ahead?
I highly recommend you read the article for what Alan Boyle says are the answers so far. If you like video, there is both a clip from the Today Show and a YouTube clip showing Irene from space embedded in the article.

One answer that you won't read in the article is from Nate Silver at the N.Y. Times. Nate concluded in How Irene Lived Up to the Hype that that the answer to the second and third questions was that the storm was not overhyped and the journalists actually got it right. His conclusion was that the ranking of the coverage based on numbers of stories about Hurricane Irene divided by the number of total news stories written while the storm was in the air was commensurate with the rankings of fatalities and damage. If anything, because of the increased number of fatalities attributed to the storm since his column was posted, it was probably underhyped.

At the time Nate wrote his post, there were 21 deaths attributed to the storm, which tied Irene with Fran for 10th. Now, the toll has risen to 46 with one person still missing, which brings the storm up to 3rd place for fatalities among the storms in his data set. In comparison, Irene 10th in media coverage while in the air, and 8th in estimated economic damage. Based on the numbers, the quantity of coverage was justified; in fact, the storm could have been covered more.

On the other hand, Nate noted that the quality of the coverage was another matter.
Certainly the tone and tenor of media coverage could be improved when it comes to hurricanes and other types of disasters. In particular, as you might expect, I think the coverage could stand to be a quite a bit more data-driven and less narrative-driven (if you can call it “narrative” to have some television correspondent mugging for the camera in his Windbreaker from the middle of a storm zone).

Data-driven, among other things, would imply informing the public when the prognosis had gotten better — as it did, for instance, on Friday afternoon, when it became apparent that Irene was failing to add much strength over the open ocean, and was unlikely to hit the Carolinas as more than a strong Category 1 storm or the Northeast as more than a weak Category 1. On the other hand, wind speeds don’t tell the whole story about a hurricane. Irene was likely to be much more damaging than implied by its wind speed alone for three basic reasons that I outlined on Friday: because it was an unusually large storm, because it was an exceptionally slow-moving storm, and because it was headed for the most populous part of the country.
Nate would probably agree with Next Media Animation that the coverage by The Weather Channel was overly dramatic in style. Still, it succeeded and drew in viewers, including me. I was watching it all weekend. Consequently, expect more dramatic coverage from The Weather Channel in the future, not less. Too bad, as I concur with both Next Media and Nate on this point.

Finally, Amy of Discovery News made the following observation on YouTube.

Our Discovery News readers were surprisingly quiet this week. Was it the dismal news? Or just the realization that we're all a speck of dust?
I commented that "Maybe it [the lack of feedback] was because millions of people had no power or Internet. That would decrease comments all by itself."

And Discovery is supposed to be a science channel. Oh, well, sometimes the obvious escapes even the brightest people.

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