CUNY journalism prof and author of “What would Google Do,” Jeff Jarvis, has become quite the maestro of Twitter hashtags. During the peak of the Washington “debt-crisis” debacle he tweaked the discourse with the trending hashtag #fuckyouwashington and has struck again during the wall-to-wall Hurricane Irene coverage. His latest contribution is the hash #stormporn, which documents the cases of news media overkill and excess in the coverage of our most recent weather spectacle.
The main criticism of this media critique has come from journos who think that the wall-to-wall coverage is worth it if it saves lives and cautions the public to stay out of harms way. My argument is that, while there may be some truth to that assertion, there’s just as much reason to think that the coverage “defeats its own purpose” to quote Raging Bull.
While newer media outlets like Talking Points Memo and city agencies like New York City’s 311 offer useful, practical information to the public about services and contingency plans, including where to expect power outages and flooding, most of the network coverage involves weather-challenged reporter standing on streets and beaches braving rain and wind to repeat the same generalizations about bad weather and government warnings, over and over and over and over. Jarvis wrote a good recap of this at his own blog, which you can read here.
It’s not that news orgs will fail in their obligation to the public if they do a lot of reporting on the storm, but rather a question of how they go about doing it. It’s the spectacle of coverage that constitutes #stormporn rather than the volume. (The volume is another issue altogether.) Television is all about the spectacle. The nature of the television environment is that image and icon will always trump discourse. Image becomes discourse. The tricks that the imagery play on our sense of reality actually serve to mis or disinform more than they help in most cases. The map of reality that emerges from imagistic discourse is much more abstract and emotional than print, for example.
The medium is the message. The medium is the massage. Not many news types seem to understand this famous aphorism, or they’d proceed in a much different manner in covering severe weather conditions. When you put a reporter in gale force winds and rain and then have that same reporter tell the public to stay indoors you violate McLuhan and you ignore your own parents. “Do as I say, not as I do” is the most basic parenting mistake known to man, yet those seeking to inform us don’t get it. Take this hilarious clip:
The reporter is upset that so many people are out and about flaunting danger, and is appalled that the gawker and flashers and drivers are setting a bad example, completely ignoring the fact that he and his peers set the example themselves by standing out in hurricane winds whenever they find the opportunity. The map becomes the territory. Consistent and repeated imagery of weather professionals standing out in flood waters, high winds, and such eventually leads people to see such events in a less serious light. That type of imagery trivializes rather than informs. It’s the numbing of the public to violence in the weather milieu.
[UPDATE: I chose the particular YouTube clip of the flasher moment because the people in the background are laughing out loud. Their reaction captures the absurdity at another level.]
Eventually, one of those weather reporters will be beaned by flying debris, sucked into flood waters, or otherwise maimed. That image will probably reverse the public perception of storm danger, but everything they’re doing now defeats its own purpose.