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Media Hype

I was recently on the big island of Hawaii with family and friends.  Our trip coincided with the dreaded twin hurricanes Iselle and Julio.  The first, Iselle, was threatening to hit land Thursday August 7th and the second on Saturday August 9th.

Now, I almost never watch television, and even less frequently the news on television, and even less frequently when in Hawaii, so I was completely unaware of the hype that had been building about the alleged danger that these two hurricanes posed to my family’s well being.  The evening before Iselle was to hit I received a beautiful text from my daughter Rebecca, who is working this summer in California, expressing concern for our safety.  I was very moved that she had taken to write me, and I assured her that things seemed to be well under control and that we would be quite safe.  The next day I exchanged similar emails with my sons, one of whom is studying in Japan this summer and the other who is working in New York City.  (There was some pleasant benefit after all that came as a result of the hype!).

I decided to check online to read about this hurricane and found no shortage of articles from around the world that were quite alarming, many saying that Hawaii was in imminent deep trouble.  If I wasn’t there myself to see that things were not as they were being portrayed in the media I’d have been alarmed as well.  As Thursday drew nearer there was a degree of panic on the island.  Reports of empty store shelves at Costco and other markets were rampant, and it was told that all water on the shelves had been cleaned out.  Fear was palpable among many of the workers at the resort where we were staying, and on the morning that Iselle was to arrive, and as winds picked up to some 25 miles per hour, with some gusts of around 50 mph, that panic seemed to escalate.  Certain people’s behavior in the face of that panic turned quite rude, as they incorrectly feared that if they didn’t rush for cover immediately then their lives were in grave danger.

In the end, the worst of the storm for the Kona side of the island where we were staying was the brief gusts Thursday morning, and a very mild rain later that day.  The second hurricane, Julio, missed the island entirely.  Iselle did leave some lasting damage, with power outages that continue to linger, on the complete opposite side of the island from Kona, so for those people affected the perspective is surely different.

Yet, from the perspective of the majority of the island, on the more inhabited portions, the media had hyped many people into a veritable frenzy for nothing, and based upon very questionable information.   Upon closer examination there was a high degree outright guessing masquerading as reporting, if not outright fiction telling.  As if trying to milk the last bit of reporting opportunism from this story, the morning after Iselle had departed, a local newspaper zoomed in and posted on its front page a shot of a few fallen branches, making it seem like the storm actually did real damage in Kona.

This particular example of media manipulation didn’t cost society too much.  People’s blood pressures on the island may have been unduly escalated, residents might have spent too much money stocking up on things at Costco and other markets.  But for me, and I’d imagine for others, it was a wake up call that should leave us all questioning the media’s accuracy in reporting, and have us insisting upon more objectivity in media.  There was a time in my life that much of media prided itself on objective reporting, but in recent times entertainment, that had once been the province of fringe outlets, has seeped into what had been mainstream media and has seemingly displaced objective and fact-based reporting.  I’m pretty certain that the societal effects of this change have been greatly underestimated thus far.

As I discussed this with my wife, asking how this transformation has occurred, it dawned on me that maximizing profits had replaced quality as the prime goal of media companies.  The National Enquirer was the forerunner of this now well-established trend towards media fictionalizing, and in its day, when it was the outlier, that publication was heralded as being the most profitable in the paper media world.  I suppose it should come as no surprise to any that other media companies studied its success, and ultimately have strived to emulate it.  How many other business models have also traded quality for profits, and what toll is that taking on society?

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