The Anatomy & Danger of Hype


It's either a snow storm or an alien invasion.

The Boston Globe Idea section has a fascinating piece yesterday called “Attack of the Light Drizzle!”  It’s about how weather forecasts – once a function of news reporting have been transformed into a hype machine.

In other words, weather news has become weather marketing.  And there’s a big difference in the presentation and the results.

Rather than present weather forecasts, especially snow storms, as information, TV has began to present weather as a product – a show.

Writer Robert David Sullivan, editor of CommonWealth magazine, gets it just right:

“Increasingly, weather is being pre-sold as a kind of public drama, one with a distinctive language and set of conventions – the military-like music, the urgent graphics, the rhetoric of promise and veiled threat. We’ve come to take all this for granted in a modern storm forecast. The roots of this approach though, don’t lie in meteorology. They come from the hype of Hollywood and big-event television – a business in which overselling isn’t a sin, as long as you draw an audience.”

Case in point was a fizzle of a storm Massachusetts experienced two weeks.  An onslaught of coverage predicted 8-12 inches of snow – lots of doom and gloom.  Lots of music and voice-overs.  Now New England natives should recognize that 8-12 inches really isn’t that much.  It’s a snow storm, but a mid-size storm that doesn’t approach a blizzard or a nor’easter.  It’s not an amount of snow we can’t handle with a bit of planning and a few salt and plow trucks.

Yet, even die-hard New Englanders got caught up on the hype – the “drama” as Sullivan calls it – of the impending storm.  And then – on the opening day – we barely got a dusting.  Yet the state and federal governments had shut down.  Schools were closed.  Offices were ghost towns.  And, of course, grocery stores were filled with panicked shoppers stocking up on bread, milk, and candles.

Sullivan’s column is a excellent read.

But this isn’t only happening in weather.  This type of hype is happening in consumer electronics (from smart phones to 3D TV), to politics (where every bill and legislation is debated at the extremes), to restaurant openings, to movie openings and even to the constant hype around next week’s (NAME TV SHOW HERE) extra special episode.

As Sullivan notes regarding entertainment and the weather hype:

“But there is also a kind of backlash against the hype. The same way a lot of movie fans simply ignore the ads for new movies and go straight to recommended DVDs, people genuinely interested in the weather often skip the news reports entirely.”

He’s right.  But it goes much deeper.  This backlash – this constant disappointment – is bleeding beyond entertainment and into every day life.  It leads to a general distrust in what we’re being told by institutions and establishments that we once trusted.  U.S. Representative Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, discussed recently how we’ve reached a point where citizens no longer agree on a baseline of facts:

“People are almost in a parallel universe. They are not getting a common set of facts and most of the people they talk to are those who agree with them”

This is the power of hype being pushed through cable TV, blogs, and the Internet.  This is how we get to a point where we can’t even agree as a nation that climate change exists.  Or that our health care system needs an overhaul.  Or that biological evolution is a scientific fact.  Or that vaccinations don’t cause autism and kill children.

In other words, the hype around politics, science, and journalism – the hyperbole, the distortions, and the outright fabrications – have confused people to a point where they don’t know what to believe anymore.  This has lead to 86 percent of Americans thinking that their government is broken, according to a recent CNN poll and that only 19 percent of Americans even trust implicitly what they hear and read from journalists.

Is that such a shock given that we can no longer trust weather reporting?  What do you think?

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