Irene Lived Up to the Hype: Nate Silver

The very question is rather dubious.

NYT stats guy Nate Silver offers lots of charts and graphs pushing back against the notion that Hurricane Irene was overhyped.

Do hurricanes receive too much media coverage? Are they more or less newsworthy than airplane crashes? The avian flu? The iPhone 5? Shark attacks? The Dominique Strauss-Kahn case? The Libyan civil war? The royal wedding? Global warming? Anthony Weiner? The Dallas Cowboys?

I don’t know. What’s easier to evaluate is how much coverage Hurricane Irene received in comparison with other hurricanes. By that standard, the coverage was quite proportionate to the amount of death and destruction that the storm caused.

It’s easy enough to conduct a series of searches on NewsLibrary.com in order to determine how much press coverage past Atlantic hurricanes have received. The only tricky part is that the further you go back in time, the fewer sources the database has available, so we’ll have to adjust for this.

We’ll accomplish this by creating a statistic which I’ll call the News Unit (or NU). This is defined by taking the total number of stories that mentioned the storm by name (for instance, “Hurricane Hugo” or “Tropical Storm Hugo”; either one is considered acceptable) and dividing by the average number of stories per day that were available in the NewsLibrary.com database during that period. I then multiply the result by 10 just to make things a little bit more legible — so essentially, a News Unit consists of one-tenth of all the stories published on a given day.

I’m incredibly skeptical of Silver’s numbers here, even though I can’t offer better ones.

While there’s no discernible pattern from the above list, it seems obvious to me that there’s simply way more news out there because of the Internet and the proliferation of cable channels. So, I’m skeptical that a percentage of overall news coverage is the right way to look at this. I’d much prefer more static metrics: column inches on the front pages of the major newspapers, hours of CNN’s telecast devoted, programs pre-empted by the Big 3 networks, and the like.

Additionally, there’s just no way in hell that Katrina was only the 14th-most-covered hurricane since 1980. Any methodology that says so is hopelessly flawed. As Silver notes in other charts, Katrina not only accounts for “about 70 percent of all United States hurricane fatalities since 1980,” it simply dwarfs all other hurricanes on the chart combined in terms of fatalities. There’s simply been nothing like it in terms of coverage.

Further, I’m not sure how useful these sorts of comparisons are. Maybe hurricane coverage is generally overhyped; if so, being middle of the pack isn’t indication of not being overhyped.

Regardless, the very question is rather dubious.

Yes, it’s true that natural disaster reporting–indeed, severe weather reporting in general–is something of a joke. It’s hyper-dramatic, amateurish, and prone to tired tropes. It’s essentially reality TV and tinged with the sense that the anchors are actually hoping for catastrophe to keep people tuned in.

Beyond that, though, there’s a pretty harsh set of realities.

I noted yesterday morning the no-win politics of natural disasters, where politicians have to make hard calls impacting people’s lives and livelihoods with too little information. It’s far better to be too aggressive in evacuating and closing down government services and being second-guessed than it is to be blase and get a lot of people killed.

A lot of the “Irene is overhyped” meme got started in my neck of the woods, Washington DC and its environs. Howard Kurtz  in particular banged that drum. After a couple days of dire warnings, we were fortunate to get off pretty light. For all practical purposes, Irene was just a really heavy rainstorm in my area. We had some power outages and fallen trees, but we get that all the time.

By Sunday morning, Irene was downgraded to a mere tropical storm and people in my area lost interest. But it turns out that there has been massive flooding in New York and New Jersey and the death toll has climbed to 24. Granting that we don’t know how many people would have been killed absent the storm (presumably, some number of people who would have gotten killed in highway accidents instead stayed home watching storm coverage) that’s a pretty severe weather event. Calling something that killed two dozen people and cost billions in property damage “overhyped” is insensitive, to say the least.

FILED UNDER: Media, Natural Disasters
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. mantis says:

    Let’s not forget that most big hurricanes occur during late August and early Sept., when not a whole lot else is usually going on. Big storm fills the news vacuum.

  2. Lit3Bolt says:

    Part of the reason Irene hype debate is falling amid predictable partisan lines is that both sides are attempting to use Irene as a example of climate change.

    However, both CC advocates and deniers in the media focus on dramatic, narrative events such as a storm like Irene rather than something slow and boring, like the worst drought since the 1930s with record losses.

    In short, whining about weather events being “overhyped” is simply a tactic to drive the narrative on weather in general, specifically CC and policy concerning it. While it may serve short term messaging strategy for Republicans, I agree that overusing it and its callousness to people truly affected by the weather event will backfire.

    Besides, everyone loves to talk about the weather. =P

  3. Matt Parker says:

    James, I’m certainly not skeptical of your overall point, but I wonder if your disbelief about Katrina’s rank is missing something. Nate specifically addresses this (my emphasis added):

    One unflattering comparison is to Hurricane Katrina, which received just 1.56 News Units worth of coverage while the storm was active, ranking it only 14th from among the 92 storms. (Katrina received lots and lots of coverage after the full effects of the storm had become manifest, but that’s not what we’re looking at here — instead, how much coverage each hurricane received while it was still in the atmosphere.)

    In fact, its not inconceivable that people taking the excessive warnings seriously reduced the damage and destruction, thus playing into the perception of hype. Conversely, the routine coverage of Katrina caused people not to take it seriously, and the results were far more “newsworthy”.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    I think Nate has proven that it was overhyped. Take a look at the other hurricanes on the list. Most of them are like Ivan, Katrina, and Andrew, hurricanes headings towards populated beach resort areas in Florida as Category Five storms, they cross the peninsula and then regroup in the warm Gulf waters and get a second round of coverage as they threaten Gulf states as a category four hurricane.

    What most of us in the rest of the country experienced was the Northeast corridor’s local coverage. Its the type of coverage I would have experienced in Louisiana prior to a hurricane, but I don’t think people in the other parts of the country would have cared for the extent.

  5. Lit3Bolt says:

    @PD Shaw:

    Good point. More people in the Northeast, more people affect by a single storm, more media outlets to recycle the coverage, more reporters standing outside in the rain looking miserable, etc.

  6. steve says:

    Nate needs to adjust his numbers to allow for the number of people directly affected by each hurricane. A Category 5 that mostly hits beach resorts should, I think, garner less coverage than a storm hitting several of our largest cities.

    Steve

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that publicizing the hurricane as a preventive measure was prudent and responsible. It’s a perfectly reasonable and acceptable local news story. However, I think tthe wrong question is being used. Should it have received national coverage as it has for as long as it has?

    I think the answer to this is “No;”. Part of the answer as to why is has received the enormous coverage has already been mentioned: slow news at this time of year. But the other reason (which I singled out in my post on this subject this morning) is that lots of the major media outlets are located in New York and Washington, DC. Reporters are reporting on it because it interests them.

  8. Tim says:

    The biggest hole in Nate’s analysis is that his analysis should be qualitative, not quantitative. The “amount” of coverage may or may not overlap with the “hype” in the coverage. You need a content analysis to know that, but that data is a lot more difficult to construct.

  9. JKB says:

    Well, to be fair, this bullet grazed rather than flying wild. A bit of shift to the west and the surge could have been higher and really flooded Manhattan. The wind field also indicated a larger surge. And the discussions by the forecasters kept pointing out the unusually strong vertical gradient in winds, which was important to an area overrun with high-rise buildings.

    The real problem is the media kept hyping the Armageddon scenario even after that dropped off the board on Thursday/Friday. They dismissed the interior, i.e., not NYC, and, as proved out, likely massive rains and flooding with power outages.

    One lesson, I’d say is don’t depend on government provided transportation to be available in emergencies. As it will be shutdown with little warning or perhaps next time, they’ll handle the logistic better. I wouldn’t count on the last.

    As for Katrina, she was just a normal storm, headed for Pensacola until Friday evening, leaving only two days warning with fears of her moving further west striking a blow at New Orleans. As it was her land fall over the Pearl River placed her in a very unique position with the Mississippi delta blocking and backing up the drainage of the surge. This backflow brought water in behind many people blocking late evacuations and amplified the landfall surge to Cat 5 levels.

    It should also be remembered that Katrina ashore passed without bad effect on New Orleans. With winds backing to blow water away from the city. But not fast enough, the piled up water found decades of political malfeasance in the flood control system, which led to a breach and the flooding of the city when the pressure was applied.

  10. john personna says:

    If the hurricane attracted too much press attention, then surely the attention on too much attention takes it to the ridiculous.

    Let’s spend a full press cycle in wasted discussion of last Saturday’s wasted press cycle!

    meta-absurd.

  11. Charles Fenwick says:

    As Matt Parker noted above, Silver’s methodology was to count only stories published during the life-time of the storm. As the last advisory on Katrina was issued Tuesday, August 30, the bulk of coverage had yet to be published (for reference, Shepherd Smith’s ‘Mad as Hell’ moment came some three days later.)

  12. racehorse says:

    I don’t know how everyone else feels, but I could do without all of the footage of reporters trying to stand out in the heavy rain and wind while holding onto a mike (except for Amy Robach)

  13. DRE says:

    @john personna:

    If the hurricane attracted too much press attention, then surely the attention on too much attention takes it to the ridiculous.

    I disagree. In fact I think we need to have a debate about whether we should be debating about the proper methodology for assessing the level and appropriateness of the hurricane coverage.

  14. Drew says:

    I think you’ve all missed the two salient points.

    1. Debating hype or overhype is superficial unless you come to grips with the “crying wolf” issue. “We” habitually cry wolf. So all the high minded comments about public safety concerns are rendered mute: nobody believes the warnings anymore. Now THAT’s a public safety issue.

    2. If we can’t figure out a hurricane’s strength and path a mere 12 hours beforehand,explain to me again the absolute validity and accuracy of AGW models?

  15. john personna says:

    @Drew:

    Easy answers, (1) you prepare for a hurricane every time, and when the big one comes you are ready, and (2) climate is easier than weather because you only care about averages, the average temperature for a regionfor the year, not the wind and rail levels in a place at a time.

  16. Wayne says:

    I am a bit suspicious of his numbers to. Something doesn’t seem quite right about them. Does anyone have a link to his raw numbers?

    I see several possibilities including not taking into account the length of the stories as James has touch on. For example using the above standard, covering a hurricane for 40 minutes straight in one hour while touching on 10 minor stories for the remainder 20 minutes would be consider less coverage than covering the hurricane for 10 minutes in one hour with two other major stories plus two minor ones for the remainder 50 minutes.

    I for one would disagree that the first one received less coverage than the second one. End the end I don’t much care much except in an academic sort of way.

  17. john personna says:

    @Wayne:

    I am a bit suspicious of his numbers to. Something doesn’t seem quite right about them. Does anyone have a link to his raw numbers?

    I hate to be cynical, but you could probably count the megabytes of meaningless crap fed through the media and Internets every day, and then suddenly sit up and notice “hey, for these few days the meaningless crap centered on hurricanes!” Yeah, so?

    (If some fraction wasn’t meaningless, and actually got people what they needed for storm preparation, that’s great, but Sturgeon’s Law was not repealed.)

  18. Dr. Joyner, you site template seems messed up (at least on IE8) and the like/dislike buttons have stopped working.

  19. MarkedMan says:

    Shorter Media Analysis: Washington DC and NYC were less affected than feared. Screw Vermont, CT and everyone else that is reeling under the impact.

  20. JKB says:

    @racehorse:

    Yeah, the Weather Channel ran raw footage of Jim Cantore. Only this time you saw him calmly call ready then dash out into drizzly rain to do his breathless routine before going right back to calm. Pure theatre.

  21. Matt Parker says:

    @Tim: That’s fair, but remember, we’re talking about the press here. There’s very little qualitative, and typically repetition is the only indicator of importance for most viewers.

  22. Peter says:

    It should also be remembered that Katrina ashore passed without bad effect on New Orleans. With winds backing to blow water away from the city. But not fast enough, the piled up water found decades of political malfeasance in the flood control system, which led to a breach and the flooding of the city when the pressure was applied.

    Had the levees not failed we’d remember Katrina as the hurricane that devastated the Mississippi coast. Its effects on New Orleans would have been quickly forgotten.

  23. giantslor says:

    Irene killed almost 40 people, destroyed many people’s homes and caused billions of dollars in damage. It would have been much worse had people not evacuated, or had Irene not weakened. Irene was not overhyped.

  24. john personna says:

    I was amused to see the “over-hype over-analysis” continuing on TV last night.

  25. just me says:

    I sometimes get frustrated at the methods reporters and the news use when covering something like a hurricane. I sometimes feel like they are almost hoping for the worst in order to have more story to cover and I also think the nature of hurricanes makes it so there isn’t a whole lot to cover until they actually make landfall.

    Irene as hurricanes go ended up not being as bad, but the effects of Irene are still being felt in portions of the east coast due to flooding issues. Generally the wind damage and storm surges get the majority of coverage, but probably the more devastating results of a hurricane come when the flooding starts.

    Even New Orleans wouldn’t have been the tragedy it was except that the flooding made it so. Not much happened during the storm, it was the flooding that killed the vast majority of people and the flooding that left them homeless and caused the most damage.

    At least with a natural disaster like a hurricane there is, if people heed warnings-some time to get tosafety and prepare for the worst. If any natural disaster is worthy of 24/7 newscoverage for the duration of the event it is probably a hurricane.