On hype, hyperbole, and hysteria

August 29, 2011

When science and the media walk in lock step the result is a public disservice

It started Tuesday with the Washington earthquake and the media’s seemingly desperate attempts to find someone, anyone willing to share their injuries or damage. None could be found, as this viral photo so aptly affirms.

And the week ended in one of the media’s worst all-time performances as they whipped the public into near hysteria over the historic storm that never was. Irene could have started as a dangerous hurricane, but scientists, experts, and the media transformed it into a storm of biblical proportions well before anyone had any idea of its true threat or character.

It illustrates an increasingly disturbing relationship between the media and science that all too often puts aside the public interest in favor of hype, hyperbole, and hysteria. Obviously, the media has always understood how to play a story to gain ratings and readership. What’s new in the equation is science’s willingness to play along in order to win face time on CNN or FoxNews.

Traditionally, science served as the governor, ratcheting down hysteria with facts and truth. This past week, however, science played a leading role overstating the risks and playing up the damage. Consider Nicholas Coch, a Professor of Coastal Geology at Queens College, who made a second career this past week as a news commentator. Coch told CBS’s “The Early Show” that Irene was going to be a replay of an 1821 hurricane that brought 13-foot storm surges to Manhattan. Hardly.

But the fear factor made for some great TV, and Coch appeared on a slew of media making similarly outrageous predictions. Not a single media point challenged Coch or any other of his scientific brethren.

Rather, the media presented them as honest and credible sources. Many are. But it’s important to understand that the scientific voices who surface during an emergency are often those willing to strike the shrillest chord. After all, what news station would ever have on a scientist who would tell it straight, and explain that the behavior of hurricanes is extremely difficult to predict?

As everyone living on the East Coast knows, storms often peter out as they crawl up the East Coast. But this alternative was never even mentioned by the scientists, the meteorologists, or the media. It wasn’t in the media’s own best interest to lose audience and it wasn’t in the scientists’ own interest to lose a media opportunity as a way to extend their reputations, build their own credentials, and win the next government grant.

In these cases, the media and science have no interest in giving a thorough analysis to all contingencies — not just the one that could slice Long Island in half or put all of Manhattan under water. That kind of scientific reality just won’t do.

Scientists now know that only the outrageous will land them on national TV or in The New York Times. You need the terrifying. The extreme. The chicken littles who are willing to compare any event to the worst the world has ever seen.

Now that’s good TV and something we have come to expect. But our expectation for science is much higher, a standard not met this week with consequences much greater than basements made wet, floor boards rattled, and confidence in the next emergency warnings well shaken.

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Rich Sedmak
Rich Sedmak
7 years 5 months ago
Nice post Greg. Facts are boring to the masses, but sensationalism is sexy. Folks who want the straight facts are having to work harder and harder curating the influx of garbage to find them. Sadly, I have a hard time envisioning a scenario in which we don't continue down the track of media outlets just getting worse with this. Do you see any future incentives for them to stop, or counter-forces that will end it? The only thing I can think of is if the economics of cable news break down and result in us consuming more efficient a la… Read more »
Greg Matusky
7 years 5 months ago

Thanks for the comment. You are right on many points. I do think there is a way to ratchet down the hysteria. Do postmortem reporting on which experts were right and which ones were the most hyperbolic. Scientist and professors are particularly susceptible to embarrassment. I betcha those scientists who did the most hyping would think twice the next time, after they get tagged with a little negative PR. Too many of them don’t know that the door swings both ways. Today’s face time is tomorrow’s red-faced.


Frank Freudberg
7 years 5 months ago

That whirring sound you hear is Orson Wells (the Godfather of sounding the alarm when there is nothing really happening) laughing and spinning in his grave. I'm sure he's monitoring things from the hereafter and I'm confident he's proud of all the Hurricane Irene "experts."