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 EDITORIAL: The media can be a scary hurricane


(Sept. 9, 2010) — In our media-saturated living rooms, every major storm that even eyeballs the coastline of the United States is given the full fear treatment by the national broadcast networks. Snazzy logos are designed. Doomsday theme music is played. Reporters head to the shores of North Carolina or the Gulf Coast, ditching their ties for much trendier windbreakers. And, oh boy, do we love satellite feeds where the voice comes in grainy because of wind gusts.

Granted, with the lackluster and ultimately deadly response to Hurricane Katrina, preparedness is key when these weather systems wreak their havoc. Having a responsive National Weather Service and (hopefully) adept Federal Emergency Management Agency can save lives and lessen property damage. If you live along the coasts of America, don’t stop looking toward the horizon to see what Mother Nature has in store.

But are we needlessly drinking the Kool Aid of these on-site anchor dispatches? Do we need minute-by-minute coverage that seems oddly bent toward scaring us as much it informs us? To prepare is one thing. To over-emphasize and blow out of proportion is another.

Ideally, the national broadcast media would find a healthy balance between the two extremes of ineptitude and scare tactics. Katrina is probably a textbook example of how all levels of government and media can bypass the warning signs. Those outlets that performed admirable reporting duties when the storm hit and during its horrific aftermath should be commended.

But the adequate reporting on the tragedy of Katrina should have been conducted years in advance.

The specifics of Hurricane Earl should not have scared New Jersey as much as it did. But still the lesson should be learned — and unfortunately this lesson is not ready-made for primetime news broadcasts.

A big storm will one day come and directly impact the greater New York City area. Will we be able to sustain the storm or does this unique area have an inherent recipe for disaster? Studies have been conducted that show the nightmare situations of a full evacuation of either Long Island or New York City. The scenarios feature so much traffic in the Bergen County area that life would be stuck in a standstill. The Meadowlands area, which sits in a precariously low-lying terrain, would be submerged. The local rivers would crest. Structures, which are not built for hurricane-strength winds, would likely tumble.

Now, this reality does not mean we should stay glued to our television sets in dreadful trepidation for what each hurricane will bring us. It doesn’t mean the local CVS and Walgreens should start making an extra dime on the scare business — offering hurricane supplies at reduced prices. Let’s stop the instinctual response of instilling more fear in Americans.

Let’s take a breath, and look at these storms with calmer eyes. Just remember the lesson of Katrina. Disrupted airline traffic and suspended ferry service was the least of the problems that faced New Orleans. What about the fear of government inadequacy?

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