Unless you’ve been living under a rock—and given what’s transpired over the past 48 hours, that would actually be a pretty good strategy—you’re aware that the East Coast of the United States has been under attack by Mother Nature in the form of a “superstorm” or “Frankenstorm,” or “perfect storm” (pick the Weather Channel moniker of your choice), the worst storm to hit the coast in 75 years.
Chances are, if you still have power, you've had your TVs tuned to some news channel, local or national, digital or cable, to get the latest reports on how “Sandy” (which is sort of like, well, Hitler being named “Biff”) was ravaging New Jersey to New England with a ferocity that would rival Genghis Khan.
So many concerned TV anchor people…brows knit…factoids flying…sometimes reporters flying (if they were telecasting from some beach front as 90 mph winds lashed their hooded-slickered bodies about)…as we sat in our little hovels all “hunkered down” (whatever it means to hunker, nobody ever took time to explain, but the term was used in more often than “Romnesia” last week), hoping we’d survive.
Of course, if you’re reading this, you obviously did, either you were West of the Mississippi, or like me, lucky enough to live in an area that received only a mild buffeting. The storm is all but spent now, but the cleanup will be days and days, people without power, people injured, all too many taken away… and not to Oz.
This catastrophe put media in a rather difficult position, looking at this from a former full-time journalist-turned-PR-guy’s perspective. On the one hand, you don’t want to unnecessarily frighten people. Yes, Sandy did have 90 mph gusts…but not everywhere. Quite frankly, I’ve experienced far worse thunderstorms with high winds and lightning; if there was lightning with this storm, I never saw nor heard it.
But then again, not everybody hearing the Baltimore-DC telecasts live where I live. Things got pretty dicey in parts of Maryland. Garrett County evidently now looks like the Arctic Circle (though admittedly, they start getting snow there around Independence Day).
But again, how do you warn people without freaking them out…then again, maybe a little freaking out is a good thing.
For one thing, fear drives viewership. The best way I ever heard it put was by that bastion of logic, Marilyn Manson. Yes, Marilyn Manson, the VOICE OF REASON in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.” Manson said that the American media, particularly news media, was geared for two things: FEAR and CONSUMPTION.
“Was it an escalator…or a STAIRWAY TO DEATH?” one local news anchor intones about some accident involving a mall escalator. Though how someone can die due to a broken escalator escapes me. As the late comic Mitch Hedberg once quipped, the escalator is the only machine that can’t be broken. When it’s not working, it immediately converts into stairs. But I digress…
Of course this is an old story. I remember back the 1980s, the classic comedy show from Canada, SCTV, had a bit with John Candy as a scientist of sorts in a news magazine interview. “Your underwear can KILL YOU, say top researchers,” says an uber serious anchor played by Catherine O’Hara. “It’s true,” Candy sputters. “People get big and don’t buy bigger underwear so the blood gets…trapped…in the…tush area…and you DIE.”
Yes, if the news media were an actor, it would be a terribly big ham.
But sometimes it’s warranted. I mean, you’ve got this storm that’s really THREE storms in one and it’s 800 MILES LONG and we’ve seen what some of these storms (i.e. Katrina, Isabella, Irene…weren’t they the names of the Lennon Sisters?) can do. Wipe out homes. Wipe out lives.
So how can you tailor a message that may need to be toned down for some and ramped way up for others?
Technology has made it possible to create messages that are tailored, not merely to small groups, but to individuals. Micro-marketing, as it were. Most immediate example for me is Amazon. You buy a few things on Amazon, and next thing you know you’re getting messages about other items, products, clothing lines that match up to your buying history. Product pitches designed just for Dan Collins of Baltimore, MD.
So can the news do the same thing? Is there a way that one day we can get a report that’s specifically designed just for me? For my home, my neighborhood at least?
My news report would always lead with Orioles news. If you know me, you don’t have to ask. Then I’d be interested in anything that impacted my career, so hospital news and maybe education as I do teach. Some more Orioles news for the Sports segment (plus some fencing and horse racing), some financial news (gotta watch my portfolio) , and of course, the weather.
Can we be that precise? Will we one day be able to give “block by block” weather reports? Well, who knew that one day you could go on to one of these computer-deals and view images, block by block, from a satellite sending its signal down from outer space? We do that today. So who knows what, tomorrow?
In the case of Sandy, given its tremendous potential for devastation and the fact that such storms are, like people, invariably unpredictable to any exact degree, it made sense to give a “blanket” report—this storm is bad, don’t mess with it, batten down the hatches, hunker, whatever, and just count yourself lucky if it turned out to be not that bad.
Because it was bad for a lot of people.
Just some post-Sandy musings. Stay safe. And Happy Halloween.
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