Irene, Howard Kurtz, and missing the big story

On Sunday afternoon, even as tropical storm Irene was slamming its way up the Hudson and Connecticut River valleys, media critic Howard Kurtz was already wagging his finger.

It was raining in Manhattan on Sunday morning, and the dogged correspondents in their brightly colored windbreakers were getting wet.  But the apocalypse that cable television had been trumpeting had failed to materialize.

Kurtz is one of the most influential journalism watchdogs in the country.  But with a remarkable lack of self-awareness, he set out to lambast reporters for doing the very thing that he was about to do himself.

That is, write too fast and too hyperbolically about an event that he didn’t yet understand.

In fact, it turns out the reporting prior to Irene was remarkably accurate.  This was a doozy.  Questions are starting to be raised about whether more should have been done to prepare, not less.

The Connecticut River is now more than 20 feet above flood stage.  Vermont has been ravaged.  Parts of Upstate New York are in shambles. But because Kurtz apparently looked out his window and saw drizzle, he assumed that journalists and local government officials had conspired to create a “hurricane of hype.”

If there were shortcomings in the media’s coverage of Irene, it has less to do with hype and far more to do with the lack of scientific context.

Researchers tell us that events like this will become more commonplace and more devastating in an age of accelerating climate change. Two recent studies by Dr. Curt Stager at Paul Smiths College and Jerry Jenkins at the Wildlife Conservation Society found that the Champlain Valley drainage will see big changes.

The areas hit hard by Irene will likely be wetter and more flood-prone in the decades ahead.

Finger-wagging aside, there are legitimate questions about whether the media (including North Country Public Radio and NPR) has educated the public about the scientific consensus about these dangers.

Sow hat do you think?  Are journalists getting the Irene story right?  What information aren’t you getting?  In particular, what can NCPR do to improve your understanding of this disaster?

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24 Comments on “Irene, Howard Kurtz, and missing the big story”

  1. Must be nice to never have to leave the cocoon of Manhattan or DC…

  2. Pete Klein says:

    Is it “educate” or “preach?”
    Last winter when it was cold and snowy, we were told it was “just weather, not global warming.”
    Now we get a hurricane and it’s due to global warming.
    The current long range forecast is calling for a cold and snowy winter. I guess that is just weather again.

  3. Brian Mann says:

    Pete –

    If your point is that news accounts need to be science and not hype based, I completely agree.

    The distinction between “weather” and “climate” is confusing to people and getting us up to speed on that is an important job for journalists.

    –Brian, NCPR

  4. tootightmike says:

    This is our second round of serious, noteworthy, and historic flooding this year. Repairs will take months, but should not be allowed to cloud the vision of our planners and engineers who will be responsible to make sure we are ready for this to happen again and again in a hundred other places. Virtually EVERY North Country town has a river, and a bridge or dam in the middle of it, and our governments and planners need to prepare for a future different from our past.

  5. Mark, Saranac Lake says:

    This Hurricane was “weather”, not “climate”. So was the winter last year. Can any specific weather event be connected directly to climate change? It is very difficult to tag any specific weather scenario as caused by climate change or “global warming” but it is the ongoing accumulation of weather trends that can be connected to climate change. This is one of the challenges of understanding climate change. We have a spell of especially cold weather and I hear people saying “what global warming!?” (usually those comments are coming from individuals that doubt the global warming issue) One of the things that is strongly referenced by the scientific community is that we are in for some changes in our usual weather patterns due to climate change. Very possibly Irene and the unusual rain and flooding this past spring are a result of these weather changes we are more likely to see over time. Time will tell but as tootightmike says, we should be prepared for it because we are certainly in for some significant changes over time.

  6. I tend to defer to the judgment of people more schooled in science than myself, not dimestore blog commenters. One remark that I retain is a comment made following the Stony Creek flooding earlier this year by a Warren County engineer that designers, planners and engineers were going to have to change their models to account for climate change to lessen the impact of the increasingly frequent natural disasters. In short, start dealing with reality.

  7. Brian M: Unfortunately journalists are not in a very good position to explain these sorts of things. First, most mainstream media journalists generalists, hence the careless, erroneous and misleading use of “climate change” and “global warming” as synonyms by many. Second, their usually very limited air time/print space is poorly suited to explain complex phenomena like weather. Climate scientists deal with these issues in 200 page reports and years of work; journalists have but a few hours to craft 30 seconds (maybe a few minutes if they’re on public radio) of airtime or a few hundred words to summarize the same.

  8. Paul says:

    It was only a matter of time before someone would connect Irene with global climate change.

    Check the first sentence of your last paragraph. Spell check wouldn’t help you there.

  9. Paul says:

    On your question NCPR is doing a great job. Keep it up.

  10. Peter Hahn says:

    Mark’s point is important.(and maybe we ned more education on this) No particular extreme weather event can be attributed to global warming. We get more of them, but you don’t know which ones are the extra ones. Also, since the oceans are a little warmer, there is a little more moisture in the atmosphere, and it comes down somewhere – so there is more rain and snow somewhere. Maybe that was why there was so much snow last winter but maybe not.

    Where the climate change/global warming gets easier to see is in when plants extend their range to areas that used to be too cold, or when insects pests start to survive in areas that used to be too cold.

  11. Paul says:

    “The distinction between “weather” and “climate” is confusing to people and getting us up to speed on that is an important job for journalists.”

    Brian aren’t you trying to say that scientists tell us the two are closely linked?

    The scientific evidence for global climate change is solid (including a man made component). There simply isn’t enough data to link climate change and weather at this point. You can’t core down into arctic sea ice and see what kinds of temperatures they had in Keene valley a thousand years ago. I do see that many of the roads that washed out there appear to be on cobble stone that once was probably part of where a river had been not very long ago. That seems to indicate that things maybe have always been changing with regard to what causes these type of flooding events. It may not really be new.

  12. Paul says:

    We all like to think that we are witnessing some new phenomena in our day. I am sure the folks in 1950 thought that that this was a first:

    http://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2010/11/natures-wrath-big-blowdown-of-1950.html

    One of the problems of modern journalism is that it frames the here and now as some new age of change.

    An event like this in 1820 would have gone on unnoticed. Look at the mountains not all the slides occurred this past weekend.

  13. Will Doolittle says:

    Brian MOFYC,
    I think it was a story in The Post-Star, wasn’t it, in which the Stony Creek engineer you cite was quoted? So your critique of mainstream journalists that immediately follows that citation rings hollow. Good journalists, who are almost always generalists, as you say, are very good at gathering information about an issue, sorting through it, and presenting the best of it to the public in a rational way. Experts often have a hard time with the last part and journalists serve as interpreters. Your critique is a familiar one these days. People who have gathered most of what they know about an issue from mainstream journalists turn around and talk about how poorly mainstream journalists do their jobs. Or bloggers who spend most of their time linking to and/or commenting on the work of mainstream journalists prattle on about how mainstream journalists aren’t up to the job any more.

  14. Pete Klein says:

    Whether or not you belong to the Church of Global Warming/Climate Change what is certain here is the need to bring our infrastructure up to speed.
    For years we have left roads and bridges to their own devices to keep budgets down. Now with the bandwagon to lower budgets even more, what are the chances money will be spent to fix what needs to be fixed?
    And by the way, Global Warming/Climate Change or not, every effort should be made to stop polluting and wrecking the environment in general.

  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Reporters are supposed to provide information and context for that information. As Will points out most journalists are generalists and they are being forced to be even more so since most news outlets are getting rid of so many of them, and there are fewer who have a specific beat. Nor are there as many old-timers like Will around who have all the wisdom of age. (Sorry, Will)

    It becomes very difficult in that situation to combat diner-babble that passes for news. For instance, the idea that because we still have winter and it is sometimes cold there is some flaw in theories about climate change. The fact is that our winters are getting WARMER just as every other season is getting WARMER.

    Warmer air hold more moisture leading to storms with greater rainfall/snowfall on average in any particular weather event. When a big snowstorm hits Washington DC and they get lots of snow reporters can’t stop talking about how deep the snow is but they don’t report that the winter of that very same snowstorm is WARMER than “average” and that the “average” is actually warmer than what “average” was 20, 50 or 100 years ago.

  16. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    As long as I’m getting this off my chest, many people talk about how we are having snowy winters like in the olden times, winters with snow on the ground throughout the winter.

    I have a theory about this — no actual data to back it up but I believe this is the case. With warmer winters we are getting many more storms that end with a spell of rain. I am highly attuned to this because, as a skier, it annoys me for nice fluffy powder to be ruined.

    Here’s the science part. Fluffy snow tends to sublimate very quickly, that is pass from solid snow into water vapor without melting first. But crusty snow, or ice, is more resistant to sublimation. Therefor we have snow that lasts much longer, but sucks to ski on. Thank God, or maybe Darwin, for ever greater technology in grooming equipment.

  17. Paul says:

    “But crusty snow, or ice, is more resistant to sublimation. Therefor we have snow that lasts much longer, but sucks to ski on”

    The ice we have at Whiteface trains some of the best in the world. Andrew Weibrecht is back on snow in New Zeland and I hope he has a great WC season.

    That particular mountain has had icy conditions for decades. If you look at old Winter Carnival pictures in Saranac Lake you see snow one year and none the next. That “local” kind of variability is nothing new.

  18. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Whiteface is, of course, famous world-wide for its icy conditions and while hard, carveable ice is good for racing or to train for racing. I’ve never heard of anyone looking out the window, seeing rain and sleet, and calling in to work for an “ice day” to go skiing.

  19. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    I am interested in the lack of coverage of the looting in the affected areas.

  20. Brian Mann says:

    ISABF – Do you know of looting in the North Country?

    Brian, NCPR

  21. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    Perhaps, I could have phrased the statement better. As there has been no reporting (that I have heard) of any looting, the assumption is that there has been none.

    Why? Why has there been no looting? Why does it occur after natural disasters in other areas, but not here?

  22. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Back to your original question–what can news organizations to to improve understanding of this disaster?

    I think your coverage of the actual events has been good.

    As to educating the public about scientific consensus around issues that directly relate to climate change, there are those who simply will not accept the evidence.
    It is very frustrating to those of us who would like to try to make things just a little bit better for generations yet to come. Of course, those on the other side think they are doing the same thing. How do you bridge the divide?

  23. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Take a look at my 4:44 post above. I don’t know why I get 2 dislikes (so far).
    Let me try to narrow this down a bit.

    If you agree that science shows winters are getting warmer, give me a like on this post. If you don’t believe it give me a dislike.

    If you just dislike me personally click dislike on my next post.

  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Okay, this is the scientific control post. If you dislike me personally give this post a dislike.

    Thanks in advance!

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