Monday, August 29, 2011

I'm Not Saying New York Sucks

Photo: Captain Kimo, Flickr Creative Commons

The New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog published an interesting look at the traditional media's reaction to Hurricane Irene. If you're like me, you spent the weekend thinking "Suck it up New York. It's a freaking category 1." A lot of Gulf Coast residents on Twitter were a bit more caustic than I was in their opinions. I've got a feeling Katrina could have a little to do with that.

Despite the fact that the point of that FiveThirtyEight post is that Irene was appropriately covered based on the level of death and economic damage it caused, the more interesting story deals with Katrina. Based on the author's formula, Irene was the 10th-most covered storm (only counting coverage while the storm was active). It was also tied for 10th based on deaths (21) and 8th in economic damage. Because of this, I'm willing to admit the coverage of Irene was reasonable. There are a lot of people per square inch where the storm hit while still hurricane strength and hurricanes are freakishly serious storms, even the category ones.

Katrina, on the other hand, was the deadliest storm by far in the time period covered in the article, more than 1500 deaths versus the 56 killed by Floyd at number 2. Katrina was the costliest storm in that period, $93.7 billion compared to Andrew's $66.7 billion (normalized). Despite this, Katrina was only the 14th-most covered hurricane during the period the article covered. Remember, this is coverage while the storm is active and not the stories from the aftermath. Katrina received half of the active-storm coverage of the top four publicized hurricanes.

This wasn't because Katrina was a surprise. The storm was huge well before it ever got to the Gulf Coast. It was known well in advance that the storm would likely hit the Gulf Coast. It was also well known by that time that a direct hit on New Orleans of a storm that size would create the biggest natural disaster in a very long time. Several months before the storm hit, National Geographic had a cover article basically saying New Orleans would be wiped off the map if a storm like this hit.

I'm going to go ahead and say that the reason is where the storm was headed. The national media cares about the East Coast the most. California matters second. New York is by far the most important. Remember the New York Earthquake? It was centered south of Washington DC. Is this right? Of course not. The population density in the area around New York justifies more coverage than other localities get, but it gets a little ridiculous when a storm like Katrina couldn't get more coverage than a category 1 like Irene until a city was largely destroyed and more than a thousand were killed.


Courtney said...

Maybe so, but I'd be willing to bet that the aftermath of Katrina will beat any other storm in terms of coverage. FEMA's mishandling of the devastation, and all the sociopolitical conclusions you can draw out of it, was covered far more extensively than the hurricane while it was happening.

Besides, it's a stupid comparison. Are New Yorkers supposed to say, "Oh, I can't worry about this hurricane barreling toward me because the Gulf Coast got a worse one that time?" Does that devalue the fact that the mid- to north-Atlantic coast got hit by a hurricane? Come on.

Jacob said...

No, I said Irene deserved the coverage, but the fact that a much more serious storm with much larger and very obvious potential for destruction is ridiculous.

Also, this entirely rules out Twitter and the like. The locals should have been talking about nothing else. I'm talking about national outlets.

My point was that the NYC bias is obvious and goes even beyond what they actually deserve for being so populous. There was never any point where Irene was going to be anywhere near the potential of Katrina.

Jacob said...

And how is it a stupid comparison? They're both hurricanes. The data for both only includes national news coverage and they both happened in the last few years so differences in technology and news habits are negligible. It seems a pretty reasonable comparison to me.

Julie said...

I don't think it's necessarily a bias for the East Coast as much as a lesson learned.

I get frustrated about people complaining over the hype because (1) ask anyone in VT if it was overhyped and (2) look what happened in LA & MS when the media wasn't screaming at the public to get out.

If NY hadn't shut down public transportation and evacuated low-lying areas and it had turned out otherwise, officials would be put on a stake for their failure to properly warn their citizens.

People will forget/forgive the minor annoyances of not having subway access for 24 hrs in less than a month. They still haven't forgotten the pictures of people waving white flags on the tops of their buildings or pleading for help at the Super Dome and it's been six years.

I expect the government to take threats seriously. If I want to gamble with my life and property - fine. I'm an individual citizen. The government can't afford to do the same.