Last week I wrote about the presidential race and the efforts being made to avoid the rational evaluation of the candidates.  This weekend, I witnessed everyone in New York City prepare for hurricane Sandy by running around, frantically buying all the bottled water and non-perishables they could find.  My lesson for October: irrationality is extremely compelling.

Whether it’s a radically misleading political statement, the deceptive analysis of an out-of-context political sound byte, or hyperbolic assumptions about possible flooding and mayhem – people really eat that stuff up.

I have the privilege of living on the 5th floor of my apartment building.  In Manhattan that’s nothing, but in Brooklyn that’s actually pretty high up.  I spent a good portion of the afternoon today looking out the window at the surrounding buildings where many people were making hurricane preparations on their balconies and roof decks.  After several hours of watching an elderly woman in a bright red sweater meticulously apply duct tape to her outer windows, something occurred to me: hurricanes really make people act a little nutty.

Turning on the television, I was treated to practically the same content on every news channel.  In one box, a looping time-lapse weather radar image showed the storm nearing the shoreline, while the other box contained a raincoat clad reporter standing on the beach yelling into the microphone.  Scenes of meteorologists alternated with scenes of government officials giving speeches about the potential negative impact of the storm.  News personalities opined on extended power outages, flooding and destruction.  It was all very alarming.

It all left me asking one question: in addition to scaring us with the prospect of death and destruction, why aren’t the news programs telling us in clear, rational terms how to prepare for the storm?  If they spent half as much time responsibly educating us as they spent trying to scare us, we’d probably be much better off.

It’s probably a hard prospect for a news program to really focus on what matters and leave out the exaggerations, fear mongering, and political word twisting.  Unfortunately people reward these disservices with viewership and, in turn, higher ratings.  If one news program were to act more responsibly, they may lose viewers to other news programs that continued to indulge our thirst for hyperbole.

However, I’ll tell you this.  If the news media did a better job serving the public rather than entertaining us, we’d all probably have a better understanding of the true views and beliefs of our political candidates.

Well – maybe.

But one thing is for sure: a more helpful news media would have saved an elderly woman in Brooklyn from spending her entire afternoon today on a totally worthless hurricane preparation.

Hurricane Preparedness
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  • I agree: the news media doesn’t exist to inform; it exists to provide news people want to hear about.

    If we assume that people enjoy (i) feeling emotions, (ii) feeling in control, and (iii) feeling superior to other people, than a news program that tells people to do easy things that (1) makes them feel in control and (2) superior to their neighbors who aren’t taking those precautions has a sizable market.

    Information-heavy news programs become even less attractive if you assume that information is difficult to process, which people can find unpleasant. It can also increase anxiety if it tells people they are at the mercy of the world and they can do very little to impact their chances.

    Sometimes, a false sense of control is desirable.

    Compare US news media to, say, the BBC which is government-funded and has quite a different mandate:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/insidethebbc/whoweare/mission_and_values/

    (Also, yesterday I was careful to check a topological map and the evacuation zones for Brooklyn. I’m 56 ft above sea level, plus I live on the second floor of a building. Which means I’m much more worried about my car being hit by a flying tree branch than I am about dealing with impertinent weather).

  • Andrew Eifler

    I’ve been trying to install disqus for sometime now, but last time i tried to install it, it broke my site theme (frames got all messed up). I’ll try again soon and hack it in here, but it will take me a while.

    Good points about the purpose of the news. I also like the point about digesting lots of information being unpleasant. One might assume the purpose of the news is to provide information – but it’s obvious they feel hesitant to provide too much information.

  • Dadio

    Drew, (2) two words: Murphy’s Law!