August 30, 2011

Hurricane Irene News Coverage Pummels Viewers with Worst-Case Scenarios
Union City, New Jersey, following Hurricane Irene's passage. Photographed by Luigi Novi under Creative Commons License

Turbocharged Reporting Underwhelmed Us

As we now know, the adrenalized coverage of Tropical Storm/Hurricane Irene as it traversed the U.S. East Coast overstated the risk of worst-case scenarios in a number of areas, like lower Manhattan and made them seem as if they were certain outcomes.  In fact, hurricane modeling is not a perfectly predictive science.  NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, is explicit about how its annual hurricane outlooks are probabilistic, which means that potential events simply have some likelihood of occurring (and, in fact, there were areas such as Vermont where the potential for damage was under-forecasted)

I know I wasn’t alone in sensing that much of the media coverage was over the top.  My relatives and friends, especially those of us in areas where the worst-case scenarios being put forth didn’t live up to the reality ended up feeling dismissive and irritated and, if we were frightened, slightly humiliated that we had been so easily spooked.  I’m sure we’ll all wonder next time whether we should follow authorities’ most stringent instructions about emergency preparation.

When events don’t arrive in the dramatically bad proportions we’ve been expecting, we as likely to tune out authorities or forget entirely that the drama at hand was destructive weather, like the Washington DC woman who reported feeling that the milder than expected storm “”was a bit of a let down.”

The Challenge Communicating Uncertainty

On the other hand, there were also areas in which the degree of potential damage was under-forecast, as in Vermont.

What then, is the right way to pitch communications when a range of possible events, all with meaningful outcomes, is wide?  It is a challenge in calm times, even more so when the pressure to act is heightened.  For one thing, we want to have confidence in our public officials and mainstream media, and they need it from us, which makes finding ways of getting up in front of the public and saying, “we’re not sure what will happen,” difficult.

For another, we all have psychological and cognitive biases that make it challenging for us to engage with uncertain information.  And we don’t all have the same biases either.  For some of us, the word “possible” means “almost certain,” for others of us it means “almost impossible,”as the 2007 Study, Uncertainty Communication: Issues and Good Practice (PDF) reported (drawing on the conclusions of (T.S. Wallsten, et al, Measuring the Vague Meanings of Probability Terms, 1986.)

Put out by the Copernicus Research Institute for Sustainable Development and Innovation, the report also discussed other forms of perception bias.

Confirmation bias describes our tendency to seek out information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.  In the case of the hurricane, we were subject to the confirmation bias of mainstream media,which, once it committed to the dramatic narrative of man versus nature, seemed compelled to stay there regardless of the evidence.   When some storms did not turn out to be as damaging as predicted, CNN and other outlets turned to was even retroactive worst-case scenario building. “It could have been worse” became a motif of post-storm reporting, with the rhetorical result that the focus on worst-case scenarios hovered in the atmosphere long after the rain slowed to a drizzle in a number of places.

Yet another form of bias, the availability heuristic, describes how “people judge an event as likely or frequent if instances of it are easily brought to mind … Memorable events, a recent disaster, or even vivid films can increase imaginability and therefore seriously bias judgments.”  Such recollections–of Katrina, Ivan, even Andrew in 1992–filled airwaves as reporters struggled to fill hours with news that would be hurricane-relevant.

Hopefully, there is time before the next weather related disaster to contemplate what government and media can do to help us accept that not everything can be perfectly predicted, and to prepare above all for ambiguity and quickly moving events.





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