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Does severe weather hype make people under-react?


History of Hype

Maybe it's global warming or simply the barrage of newscasters braving the elements to report from storm-ravaged areas mid-destruction -- most notably CNN business reporter Ali Velshi, who for some reason spent his 43rd birthday knee-deep in a Sandy-flooded intersection of Atlantic City -- but it sure does seem like our weather patterns are getting more extreme.

Not so, according to a 2011 study by the Twentieth Century Reanalysis Project, which showed no evidence that weather trends have intensified in recent years [sources: Keene, Jolis].

Perhaps then it's just the hype surrounding severe weather events that has ramped up of late. During the week it made landfall, Hurricane Irene comprised 21 percent of all news covered, trailing only coverage of Middle East-related tensions, which garnered 26 percent of the news focus, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism [source: Meyers].

But it's not just the sheer amount of coverage of severe weather that feeds the hype machine. There's also something about the way in which these events are covered. It is a fundamental principle of journalism that speed should not be traded for accuracy. Yet it seems that some of the most intrepid of reporters are at times swept up in the fury of big weather.

For example, take the widely reported, yet completely false rumor that during the height of Sandy's onslaught on Manhattan, the floor of the New York Stock Exchange was flooded with up to 3 feet (1 meter) of water. This little nugget of information was never confirmed -- because it simply wasn't true -- but with water gushing all over the island (and Ali Velshi being whipped around by the wind in nearby New Jersey), it appears there was simply no time to worry about mundane matters like factual accuracy [source: Keene].

That's not to mention the way in which potential weather events are described. Reporters, government officials and experts who use terms like "catastrophic," "historic," and "unprecedented" to describe a storm without explaining just what makes a particular weather system unique do nothing but water down the gravity of these words. There are only so many times one can hear that a particular storm is the "big one" before he stops heeding warnings all together [source: Wemple].

But it's not just hype that leads people to underestimate severe weather. There are other reasons why some of us assume that all reports of oncoming storms are simply crying wolf.