Does severe weather hype make people under-react?

Journalists interview Betty Walsh (C), a local resident of Brooklyn, N.Y. during Hurricane Irene. See more storm pictures.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong. But one thing is for sure: When it comes to media reporting of severe weather events, the threat of a hurricane, tornado or even a heck of a lot of snow is not likely to go unnoticed for lack of coverage.

And with good reason. In the 24 hours leading up to Hurricane Sandy's devastating blast through New York and New Jersey, the Weather Channel brought in more than 2.035 million viewers, not to mention a record 300 million page views on its Web site. These TV ratings were far better for than any other cable network covering the storm [sources: Szalai, Richwine].

Sandy, of course, is a perfect example of a storm whose media-fed hoopla was warranted. "I still think there is a tendency, in the wake of Katrina, to cast every storm as a potential Category 5 killer," media critic Howard Kurtz said of the Sandy coverage. "But given the magnitude of Hurricane Sandy, which killed at least 33 people in the United States and knocked out power to more than 7.5 million, the media hype was more than justified" [source: Kurtz].

In the ratings game, whether a storm actually lives up to the hype is mostly an afterthought. Consider Hurricane Irene, which threatened the eastern seaboard in late August 2011. Here's Kurtz on the coverage of that storm, which turned out to be a relative dud (coming ashore as a tropical storm): "The tsunami of hype on this story was relentless, a Category 5 performance that was driven in large measure by ratings" [source: Kurtz].

Ratings indeed: The Weather Channel's 2.77 million viewers on the Saturday the storm was scheduled to hit land outpaced the numbers for Sandy, a much more brutal storm. Some of the difference was lost to competitors like Fox News, while power outages, increased Web site views during Sandy and perhaps a little hype fatigue may have also played a role [sources: Ariens, Leslie].

In Katrina's aftermath, politicians and city and state officials are only too eager to follow the freakout drumbeat. After seeing what a failure to properly respond to a weather threat did for the likes of George W. Bush, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, and former FEMA chief Michael Brown ("Heckuva job, Brownie!") local leaders probably figure it's better to go all in.

But a couple of swings and misses by the hype machine could lull amateur storm watchers into a false sense of security. Does severe weather hype cause people to under-react when a storm's a brewing? Read on to find out.

More to Explore