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?