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Waiting for Irene: In defense of local media

Posted by Mark Leccese  August 25, 2011 09:52 AM

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Here in New England, not only does everyone complain about the weather, everyone complains about the local media’s forecasts and coverage of the weather.

At 9 this morning, the Boston.com story “Hurricane forces a change in plans: Boats pulled, concert reset, Sox weigh schedule change” brought out the rage in commenters.

Bloomy wrote:

Oh noes! A hurricane! It’s not like us New Englanders haven’t been through one. You media people are just vultures...

Years ago I played on a softball team made up of State House reporters. Our name, of course, was The Vultures.

CrystalPhoenix wrote:

For pity’s sake. We’re NOT going to get a hurricane. We’re going to get some rain. When are we going to turn the clocks back thirty years and accept that WEATHER HAPPENS, and we don’t need to scream and flail our arms every time it threatens to do so??

And so on. You’ve heard the complaints before — usually loudest in the winter as a snowstorm approaches — that the local media is sensationalizing weather forecasts, just trying to scare us, seeking higher ratings, making a big deal out of nothing but a few snowflakes, or, in this case, a little wind and rain.

I stand up today in defense of the editors and the meteorologists.

All of the reliable forecasters, including the National Weather Service’s Hurricane Center, predict today Boston and Massachusetts are smack in the center of the probable track of Hurricane Irene. Have a look.

Neither of Boston daily newspapers led this morning’s paper with Hurricane Irene stories. The Herald played it on page one as a lesser story than Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s opposition to fuel tanker trucks on the streets of Boston and, um, “$10 Deals on Newbury St.” The Globe didn’t even run a Hurricane Irene story on page one.

No screaming and flailing there.

Yes, local TV news shows give more prominence and screen time to meteorologists when heavy weather is approaching. Why would you expect any different? Weather is news. If you’re like most folks, one of the main reason you tune into TV news is for the weather forecast. Do I take an umbrella to work or not?

Every intro journalism textbook starts with the standard list of the criteria for what constitutes news. The criteria usually including this kind of thing: timeliness, impact, proximity, novelty, conflict and so on.

A hurricane barreling down on southern New England fits all of those criteria, including conflict (that dramatic “humans vs. nature” thing). A hurricane barreling down on southern New England affects (or, as the academics have it, “impacts”) every person living in the area. And a hurricane in New England is a novelty. I don’t need to explain proximity and timeliness.

Reporting the story of a hurricane with the potential to do some serious damage and disrupt a few million lives is more like being the canary in the coalmine that being the vulture in the desert.

A big storm equals big news. Full stop, as the British say.

If you want to follow the forecasts of the on Twitter — and keep an eye out for any vultureish tendencies — I’d recommend following the two best meteorologists in the Boston media: Matt Noyes at NECN (@MattNoyesNECN) and Harvey Leonard at WCVB (@HarveyWCVB).

Covering the track of Hurricane Irene doesn’t need to be as a serious as a heart attack, so you may also want to check in periodically with the French Toast Alert System, thoughtfully developed by Adam Gaffin of the local news website Universal Hub (@UniversalHub).

The French Toast Alert System has been developed in consultation with local and federal emergency officials to help you determine when to panic and rush to the store to buy milk, eggs and bread.

That’s all from me. I’m off to buy flashlight batteries.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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