Monday, August 29, 2011

Everything on TV Is Overhyped

There's a flap today about whether the cable nets overhyped Hurricane Irene, as Howard Kurtz says they did. Jamelle Bouie has a good dissent, and Nate Silver provides plenty of data to show that the hype was about right for a hurricane of this size and damage -- although that doesn't speak to Kurtz's point, which is that hurricanes in general are overhyped.

I guess what I'd say about this is that it's almost certain that everything on the cable nets is going to be overhyped. I suppose that's not literally true by definition, but it's close. There are all sorts of interesting and important stories around the nation and internationally, and if the cable nets pick a dozen, or even two dozen, stories to cover then those stories are going to be getting disproportionate coverage compared to their overall importance. Even if they choose really well, based only on some sort of world-historical scale of importance.

What I think this leads to is that questions about how the cable nets spend their time are just the wrong questions to ask. As individuals who want to be informed, the correct questions are about how to go about being informed (hint: TV news has always been a lousy way to be informed about anything other than what the TV news is covering, and it's probably not an efficient way of getting informed about that). Collectively, we can also think about which things are and are not covered, and how we might be able to structure incentives so that people will dig up information about the things we want information about. That's a hard question, and one that's really worth putting some time into. But it's not really related, much, to how CNN fills up all that airtime.

But complaining about the cable nets devoting too much time to weather is sort of like complaining that ESPN spends too much time on highlights; that's what they do! Indeed, it's more or less what they're good at. Granted, I'm happy that they do other things too, at least sometimes, but at least with the weather stuff there's an actual public information component to it. Unlike, say, glorified local crime stories. Anyone who expects more from the cable nets is just sort of missing the point.


  1. The glorified local crime reporting is not only one of the reasons I don't watch cable news, I think it actually harms society. It gives people a false sense of danger. This leads to less trust overall. Trust is the foundation of civilization. Cable news actively chips away at that foundation.

    The same is true of local news of course. "if it bleeds, it leads" is pernicious. It may be bad that as a society we are self segregating into interest groups that have independent sources of information, but at least it is leading us away from sensational crime reporting.

  2. The ubiquity of the "overhyped Irene" meme is yet one more depressing illustration of how thoroughly lacking in business instinct is the average person on the street.

    At a couple days out from NYC, a few reliable models had Irene slamming into Battery Park as a Cat 2 or 3. That was the most likely scenario, but obviously not likely per se, perhaps there was only a 10% chance or so of that specific, central forecast coming to pass. For simplicity, suppose the other 90% of outcome probability could be organized into 9 discrete, 10% chance outcomes.

    So there was one scenario that would have been a defining event of our lives, that would have largely characterized our age, and nine other scenarios that would have been quickly forgettable.

    And Howard Kurtz, and millions like him, lament the fact that GMs of cable newsies, having as they do expertise at maximizing the P&Ls of cable news organizations, did not treat those ten hypothetical scenarios equally at T-3 days? Is that how those managers became successful, by reporting on the stuff people want to hear, and the stuff they don't, in proportion to relative probabilities, instead of in proportion to the relative amount people want to hear each about each scenario?

    Kurtz is apparently some sort of media expert. Reading his piece, I couldn't escape the impression that he's never actually interacted with senior management at any media organization.

  3. Actually, set aside the money argument above, Kurtz does acknowledge that profit motives drove the coverage, but that's seen as a bug in terms of shallowness of the producers/hurricane hypers, not we the ambulatory hamburger consumers.

    There's a more fundamental problem here: the Irene hype argument is transparently wrong, irrespective of profit motives. In a money-free vacuum, the appropriate coverage for an uncertain future event is equal to:


    For example, a clearly over-hyped event was the return of Skylab. Probability of damage was small, and the worst that could have happened was the thing landed on my head. Pretty salient to me, but surely no one outside my family would have cared.

    With Irene three days out, you had a low probability of an extremely catastrophic event (a huge storm surge driven into lower Manhattan), so the salience was pretty obviously off the charts.

    At a mimimum, Kurtz and the other hand-wringers ought to at least tell us which of the two contributing factors was overdone in the coverage; that is, were the chances of a catastrophic storm surge in Manhattan so small, or the impacts so minimal, that the coverage was overhyped, a la Skylab?

    I'm confident no one would argue either the probability or salience point, since its fairly obvious they'd be wrong on either front, no?

  4. Yes, it was hype. All of them hyped this story. Fox News claims "we report, you decide", but they hyped this storm just as all the other networks.

    If they'd all just reported the story, it'd all be understandable. But that's not what they did.

    Yes, they have a business model to protect, no doubt. I hope their business model is sensitive enough to realize that I and many others were flicking channels through all of this hype. (and perhaps we channel flickers are to blame, as the cables' goal has become providing video that causes us to pause in the midst of our flicking).

    Secondly, in terms of the cable networks' responsibility to inform the public, I think that in none of the coverage did I find inland flooding made a major concern. It was well known by all the people affected, obviously, but for the alleged "reporters" not to have picked up on it is criminal. They were all transfixed watching waves break at the seashore, because that's great video, not realizing that people die inland from 12" of rain just as easily as they die from a 10' tidal surge. And you can have the 12" of rain with NO tidal surge, as we know. It's still deadly. So, I disagree with Mr. Bernstein's point here, and aver that the cable nets DIDN'T report the weather stuff properly, and did not properly fulfill a public information role.

    And the ESPN analogy doesn't hold either. ESPN doesn't sit on a story 24/7. They have subnetworks to catch satellite action, but not even those will sit on one story.

    But you've got the major thrust of it, Mr. Bernstein. If it bleeds, it leads, as the first commenter mentions, and the cables want to video the bleeding as their prime (only?) directive, and will be disappointed if they don't get what they want. The cable networks are an inefficient source of information, to be sure.

  5. I think the New York City factor explains both the hype, and the perception that the storm was a dud even though it did a lot of damage elsewhere. Anything that affects New York City will get ten times as much attention by the news media.


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