For the most part hurricane Irene was not covered by science journalists as a science-rich event, but by weather and disaster reporters who (correctly too) saw it as a government, FEMA, personal tragedy, natural disaster and public service warning package. But there were science angles, such as the connection to global warming that this site has already addressed.
A good summary of broader, overall media coverage, and of accusations from some that reporters and editors at major web, print, and broadcast outlets went way overboard, is at the Columbia Journalism Review by Curtis Brainard. (Note – had wrong link here for a few hours, now fixed) For one thing, Brainard is a specialist on climate reporting and criticism thereof, so is usually squarely focussed on a beat that also is one of ksjtracker’s prime interests. Second, he wades into a fight over the hype some perceive. Particularly notable here and worth taking notes on is Brainard’s review of a NYTImes man’s “News Units.” These are gauges of story dominance in a day’s news budget. Very handy. Somebody should write some software to calculate it automatically and post the results in real time.
For what it’s worth, I believe the advance reporting was exactly correct. It was no hype that Irene posed a historic threat to the eastern seaboard. Nobody, particularly among meteorologists and other storm authorities, is about to apologize for seeing the storm’s potential for epochal havoc. If an asteroid has a ten percent chance of hitting Earth, that is the biggest natural disaster curtain-raiser for potential news in the history of mankind – even if it does also mean a 90 percent chance Earth watches the rock whiz harmlessly by. Ditto for hurricanes or leaking reactors or armies massing on borders. Preparation and warnings are in order. The storm blew to pieces, in terms of hurricane ferocity, somewhere just south of NY Harbor. Its rains absolutely drowned parts of New England anyway. In the Carolinas it left the full tropical cyclone package of wreckage in its wake. To shout Watch Out! was no hype. The storm was, even if it fell out of hurricane status early, colossal.
However there was a bit too much mindless momentum to the coverage. Even as the winds faded, TV reporters stood on beaches and in the streets of NYC gawking at flooded intersections because that is where the script told them the story would be. In the meantime the unexpected story – almost the definition of news – went unreported for many hours. That was the horrendous rain well away from the shore, particularly in New Hampshire. NASA has released a satellite image (higher res and original color coding at link, my own photo-edited version up right) taken before dawn on Sunday. By that time the coast was already nearly clear. But check out the deepest hues in the Vermont-New Hampshire area, corresponding to coldest cloud tops and heaviest rain. Surely TV weather guys watch these feeds. A few of them should have been shouting at their assignment desks to get somebody up there or to at least talk about it (maybe some were shouting, for all I know). I dunno about chances that mere web and print reporters would all be on the ball re satellite weather maps to that extent. But media as a whole ought to have begun pivoting toward rain and not wind by sun-up Sunday. Somehow information on this budding disaster inland should have reached not just the likes of FEMA but the media and the public quicker.
– Charlie Petit