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Opinion

Burriss on Media: Hurricane Irene

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By Larry Burriss, PhD

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wmot/local-wmot-984577.mp3

Murfreesboro, TN – At the risk of sounding like "Everybody hates me, I'm going to eat some worms," the media are always a convenient target when it comes to natural disasters. And when I was in the Air Force we had a saying, "The mechanics know more about flying airplanes than do the pilots; the pilots know more about fixing airplanes than do the mechanics; everybody knows more about putting out a paper than does the editor."

In covering meteorological stories with the added potential of a disaster, reporters have two sources: weather experts who give the forecasts, and government officials who respond to those forecasts. Both groups sometimes have divergent purposes, which then influences the kinds of information reporters relay to the public.

According to the models, Hurricane Irene had the potential to be a major disaster. Given complex and incompletely understood weather patterns and dynamics, forecasters made their predictions: "Based on our best estimates, here is what we think is going to happen."

Although weather forecasting has become much better, it is still an inexact science. The dynamics and variables are simply much too complex to be completely analyzed.

Given these forecasts, government officials began to respond. In some cases these responses led to evacuations, curtailment of various public activities, etc. In other cases, government officials decided to take a "wait and see" attitude.

Unfortunately, government officials, like reporters, are in a "no-win" situation: if they call for extreme measures that later prove unnecessary, they are seen as alarmist, as are the media that report these actions. If officials wait and see, and the worst happens, they are seen as irresponsible, as are the media that report these actions.

In this case two different stories led to what some people are calling hyperbolic, irresponsible reporting: (1) forecasters predicting serious winds and rain, and (2) government officials calling for emergency responses. Both of these are, by themselves, legitimate news stories, and when combined make an even more compelling story, with public service overtones.

Over the past week the news media have reported what the meteorologists were saying, and how officials were responding. This is a legitimate story. Over-reporting perhaps led to evacuations and some minor inconvenience. Under-reporting could have led to serious injury, disaster and death.

I'm Larry Burriss.