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Hurricane Irene: Broadcasters Tread Thin Line Between Warnings, Hype

As Hurricane Irene sped up the east coast this weekend, broadcasters went wall to wall with coverage of the mega weather event while some questioned whether the media went overboard in hyping the effects of the storm.

There were no reports of TV stations experiencing any tower damage during the storm, which hit the coast of North Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane early Saturday morning. Three radio stations in the New England and New York City area went dark according to The FCC said there were no public safety communications outages but there were some cable and wireless outages. “Overall, broadcast and radio are largely unaffected, though in North Carolina, a significant number of cable customers are out of service,” Chairman Genachowski said in a statement on Sunday. He added that the commission remains “on active watch around the clock to assess and respond to outages where necessary,” and that they have four “Roll Call” teams available to conduct post event scans of the radio signal environment.

Broadcast stations expanded their coverage, many going live all day on Saturday as the storm hugged the east coast. After its live news coverage on Saturday, Washington-area CBS affiliate WUSA continued to cover the hurricane on its main signal, shifting the national evening CBS feed (including an NFL preseason game) to the 9-2 digital secondary channel that normally runs the station’s weather radar.

The hurricane prompted the usual competition among news reporters to see who could situate themselves in the most hazardous conditions to illustrate the storm’s fury. The possible winner in these sweepstakes was Tucker Barnes, a reporter with Washington Fox affiliate WTTG, who was covered in “sea foam” as he positioned himself alongside the boardwalk in Ocean City, Md.—only to find out that said “sea foam” was the possible effects of sewage pouring into the ocean during the storm.

Although government agencies and weather interests dutifully warned east coast residents of the possible dangers of the storm, many viewers were jaded and outright contemptuous of what they viewed as “over hype” of the hurricane, which maintained its status as a Category 1 hurricane before petering out to a tropical storm after passing over New York on Sunday. Media Critic Howard Kurtz, writing in “The Daily Beast” was typical:

“I say this with all due respect to the millions who were left without power, to those communities facing flooding problems, and of course to the families of the 11 people (at last count) who lost their lives in storm-related accidents. And I take nothing away from the journalists who worked around the clock, many braving the elements, to cover a hurricane that was sweeping its way from North Carolina to New England.

“But the tsunami of hype on this story was relentless, a Category 5 performance that was driven in large measure by ratings. Every producer knew that to abandon the coverage even briefly—say, to cover the continued fighting in Libya—was to risk driving viewers elsewhere.”

Such criticism, however, didn’t stop one station group chief to praise the employees of a North Carolina TV station, according to NewBay sister publication Multichannel News. Washington/Greenville, NC station WITN spent more than 58 hours covering the storm, prompting Gray President/COO Bob Prather to comment, in an internal memo, “This kind of coverage of natural disasters is what keeps our stations first in the hearts and minds of our communities.”