Sunday, August 28, 2011

Everybody Talks About The Weather...

As I type this, Hurricane Irene is churning its way in my general directions.  I find it difficult to get too intimidated by an entity that shares a name with my grandmother's sister.  The woman used to knit caps for her cats, for pete's sake.  Of course, the fact that I am 100 miles inland and nowhere near a major body of water also increases my hubris.

The media have been hyping this storm for nearly a week now, and I have to say, it's hard for me to take them seriously about it.  I do believe in my heart of hearts that they do genuinely want their viewers to be safe, but as a former media guy myself, I know the major part ratings play in everything they do.  With so many possible choices for information these days, media outlets are constantly trying to draw attention to themselves by whatever means possible.

I worked in radio news in the late 80s and early 90s.  Broadcast radio in those pre-internet days was still a pretty active player in the media game.  Among my responsibilities was to assemble stories from the various wire sources to which we subscribed into a five minute newscast.  There was no shortage of material from which to choose, but I learned early on that there was an unwritten rule to putting it all together: "There ought to be blood at least once in every newscast, and death if you can get it."  The reasoning behind it was that these stories grabbed the attention of listeners more and therefore made them more likely to become repeat listeners.

As a result, a car accident on the other side of the state with no local connection at all was more likely to make the newscast than an actual local story with a less "sexy" angle.  This rule wasn't hard and fast, mind you.  Sometimes there was no blood or death to be had, and once in a while there were enough impossible to ignore local stories to keep the gore at bay.  At the time, viewing it as a young adult on the inside and ground-floor of the business, it all seemed  perfectly appropriate.

Now fast-forward 20+ years.  Competition among media outlets has increased exponentially.  There are more elbows than ever being thrown in an effort to attract the attention of viewers.  And these media outlets are willing to stoop lower and lower to find things that will jack up ratings.

The other day, I had one of the cable news channels on, and this big voice came on stating in the most serious tone, "This is (Insert Name Here) Breaking News!".  This was of course accompanied by tense music and expensive-looking graphics.  Well, it got my attention.  I remember Reagan getting shot, the space shuttles going down, 9/11, and the rest of it, so I figured it was some pretty big deal.  The "breaking news"?  President Obama was about to give a speech on the economy.  Isn't it his JOB to give speeches and whatnot?  Doesn't he do it all the time?  How is THAT breaking news?  Nonetheless, it did get my attention.  And I was pissed off that it did.

So when the media outlets are urging us to take precautions because a storm is coming, I just can't help but wonder if they are crying "Wolf!"  When they present everything as being so urgent in order to grab attention, how can you tell when something really IS urgent?  I don't want to be like that character in every disaster movie who ignores the warnings he is given and then is washed out to sea in his split-level ranch.  At the same time, I don't want to be one who panics every time attention-hungry media types want to stir things up whether for real reasons or for ratings.

It does work though.  I have to admit, I've watched more of The Weather Channel this past week than in all the rest of the year put together.

There is another side to this as well.  When some Kardashian's wedding, for example, gets space in a newscast, that means something else, something less ratings-friendly but likely more important to everyday people, like people starving to death in east Africa, gets kicked to the curb.  Media bias, so frequently hollered about these days, is not just in the stories they choose to emphasize, but even more so in the ones they do not.

My point in all this, and I do have one, is that we all need to be savvy media consumers, now more than ever.  And, we need to be sure that our children are taught to be as well. It is vital that they can distinguish between real news, "fluff", parody, and infomercials, all of which blur together at times.

I'd type more, but my neighbor's Volvo just landed on my back deck, so I had better go to Costco and stock up on canned goods and candles in case the powe


  1. Well said. And I have to admit it's more fun to watch hurricanes when there is no chance of them hitting you. We always felt complacent here -- hell, we were the place people from New Orleans evacuated *to* -- until Gustav leveled half the trees in our yard. We still don't go crazy, but it doesn't hurt to have a little water around, and a few days worth of something you can cook without electricity.

  2. By the way, the entry was supposed to end like that. A little gag for the observant among you.