Media: An Early Warning System Or Hype Machine?

Here's a question media writers, press critics and bloggers have been batting around since Katrina: Do the media overhype minor concerns that pack a visceral punch and underplay important concerns that are more complicated and/or less immediate?

The question of why America wasn't better prepared for Katrina, after all, doesn't begin and end with the government. It also falls to the media: Did they sound the necessary alarms about what could happen in New Orleans? In August of 2001, FEMA managers made a list of the three potential catastrophes Americans were most likely to face: a terrorist attack on New York City, a hurricane in New Orleans, and an earthquake near San Francisco.

There were, then, credible warnings about what could be coming – and, in fact, two of the three predictions have now come to pass. But despite the official warnings, most Americans had no idea that New Orleans was at such high risk for devastation. That isn't to say that there weren't prescient reports from some quarters: The New Orleans Times Picayune, for example, ran an excellent five-part series on the potential disaster back in June of 2002.

But most of the media paid little attention. Byron Calame, public editor of the New York Times, recently took his paper to task for its coverage of New Orleans over the past ten years. Calame wrote that readers of the Times were far more likely to read "stylishly written articles about the city's charm, cuisine and colorful characters" than pieces on the city's poverty or the potential for catastrophic damage from a hurricane.

Of course, the Times can't be expected to cover everything – and the paper did run a major article on the vulnerability of the levees in 2002. But too often, says Barry Glassner, professor of sociology at the University of Southern California and the author of "The Culture of Fear," the media overemphasizes low probability dangers and ignores more serious ones. "The public gets a distorted perspective on the dangers that they're actually likely to encounter," he told me. "The dangers we are most likely to encounter are seen by people in the media as boring. And in some cases they are actually pretty mundane – the danger of dying in a bathtub, for example, is greater than from a terrorist attack."

Glassner says minor issues are most likely to be blown out of proportion during slow news periods – and that the most likely media to do so are local television news outlets, cable news channels, and newsweeklies, though he says every outlet engages in it from time to time. Often, he says, an isolated incident or report of a new disease – such as Ebola, SARS, West Nile virus, or mad cow disease – triggers overblown coverage. "One of the real tragedies in American society is that a viewer of much of the media would have a hard time knowing they need to be more concerned about natural dangers like hurricanes than shark attacks or child kidnapping," he adds.

There's an irony here: The free-floating anxiety created by the media's oft-fearmongering coverage is itself something to fear. (FDR might not have been quite right that we have "nothing to fear but fear itself," but he wasn't that far off.) As Slate's Marc Siegel points out, fear causes stress, and stress can have very real consequences. "The American Heart Association has emphasized a correlation between stress and overeating and stress and smoking, both of which lead to heart disease, [and] a 2000 study in the journal Stroke of more than 2,000 men showed that those suffering from anxiety or depression were three times as likely to suffer a fatal stroke," he writes. It's entirely possible, then, that we should be more worried about our fear of shark attacks than shark attacks themselves. Which means that magazine covers like this surely aren't good news.

But that doesn't mean the media shouldn't be covering very real concerns -- or potential ones. Had they done a better job with New Orleans, for one, more people might have gotten out, the response might have been better, and public outcry might have gotten the levees strengthened before the storm hit. Of course, the press can only inform people, not make them listen – but if they focused on serious concerns, not relatively insignificant ones, it would be a lot easier for people to come to the conclusion that it's worth listening.

The challenge for the media, then, lies in figuring out which stories deserve coverage and which do not. In the case of shark attacks, it's a pretty easy call – after all, shark attacks are dramatic, but they occur extremely rarely. In other instances, it's more difficult. Many news outlets have been focusing on the possibility of a widespread avian flu (also known as "bird flu") outbreak in humans, for example – CBSNews.com alone has run over 100 stories that mention bird flu. Some people think those pieces are hype and fear-mongering, while others feel the story is being ignored. And if bird flu ever does become an epidemic, most everyone will think it was undercovered. (Siegel, in the article cited above, says its hype, arguing that such an outbreak is unlikely.) It takes hard work to figure out which stories need to be written and which amount to fearmongering, and it's not easy to know if you're on the right side, particularly for reporters who lack expertise in a given area.

And there are a lot of concerns out there – as CBS National Editor Bill Felling says, "[As for] stories about preparing for things like hurricanes and earthquakes, you could do one of those every day for the rest of your life." News outlets have to pick and choose wisely, and media watchers hope Katrina will spur more stories about real dangers and less about How Your Carpet Could Kill You!

Early signs are encouraging: The third possible catastrophe cited on the 2001 FEMA list, an earthquake in the San Francisco area, was this week the subject of a cover story in the New Republic. But it remains to be seen if many other media outlets see Katrina as a wake up call, or if they view the storm as just another sensational story that only became worth covering when it was already too late. What do you think – is the New Republic story a harbinger of things to come, or will the media revert to its old ways once Katrina starts to fade from memory?

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