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Category 5 hype: Did nonstop coverage of hurricane Irene save lives?

Hurricane Irene never reached above a Category 3 hurricane as it moved up the eastern seaboard.

Hurricane Irene never reached above a Category 3 hurricane as it moved up the eastern seaboard. But media coverage of the storm easily reached Category 5 proportions.

On one hand, columnist George Will dubbed it “synthetic hysteria,” while the Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz noted, “Cable news was utterly swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon.”

Yet others point to the widespread flooding and the death toll, which has now reached 23, and say that everyone from the national broadcast networks on down to the smallest TV outlets was right to err on the side of caution.

The situation is complicated, say disaster experts, meteorologists, and media pundits. For every excess, there are examples of lives saved and property protected.

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To media critic Tom Cooper, weather emergencies are one topic where media excesses are acceptable, even welcome.

“Despite all the negative commentary thrown at the media, what journalists often do best is SAVE LIVES,” says Mr. Cooper, author of “Fast Media/Media Fast: How to Clear Your Mind and Invigorate Your Life in an Age of Media Overload,” in an e-mail.

“Having studied how the Amish live without media and how the Rapa Nui people use very little media, I can testify that these low media and no media zones could greatly benefit from the constant updates in weather coverage that we have,” he adds

“When lives are at stake, and indeed lives were lost in the path of Irene, we need to thank media of all types – social media, network journalism, online, and printed journalism – for preventing fatalities, injuries, and damage of many kinds,” he says. Whatever errors media make in reporting weather, he adds, the alternative to “over-reporting,” would be “under-reporting,” and “it is inhumane and irresponsible.”

But former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh says the coverage went too far, and this has its own consequences.

“This far outstrips any coverage of a much more devastating hurricane, namely Katrina,” he says. “The official response to that hurricane may have been bad, but the media coverage was not.”

As a result of the wall-to-wall coverage and predictions with Irene, he notes, next time large numbers of people are called upon to evacuate or respond to official directions, “they will remember this time and decide for themselves that the predictions are overdone.”

Needless to say, he adds, “this could have devastating results.”

The wording of the threat level for Irene might have contributed to the problem, says Rich Hanley, director of the graduate journalism program at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

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“Official threat assessment drove the coverage,” he says via e-mail. “It has five levels: low, medium, high, extreme, and catastrophic. So when the word ‘extreme’ is used for a Category 2 or 3 hurricane, it is interpreted literally as such and drives other word usage on the same plane; ‘dire’ and ‘extraordinary’ were two examples that emerged on the leaderboard.”

Social media played a role in tempering the hype to some degree, says Charles Palmer, executive director of the Center for Advanced Entertainment and Learning Technologies at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania.

“People turned to their most trusted sources for information updates, and these days that is more and more often people using Facebook and Twitter, not necessarily big mainstream media,” he says.

Friends and personal contacts, he adds, are far more likely to give an accurate picture of a local situation.