Wednesday, September 26, 2018

We deserve less catastrophic reporting.

Not long ago, my region was staring down the barrel of Hurricane Florence, a Category 2 storm set to batter the eastern seaboard and destroy homes, properties, and perhaps even lives.

Well, okay. I'm up in Hampton Roads where, between being slightly more inland and above ground and being within reach of the tendrils at best, we were beset with the outside edge of Another Goddamn Inconvenience Spiral. The closer Florence came, the further downgraded we got, until my area got (at best) some drizzle and a blackout that lasted five seconds.

We — or at least I — was hugely relieved in large part because, once again, we got catastrophic reporting.

Now, something up front. The Carolina coast got far more than an Inconvenience Spiral. There was flooding, there was wind, and they're looking at hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage. These people need help getting their situations back together, and they took the brunt of some extremely nasty weather. I am not in any way downplaying the situations of those who were affected, and I continue grateful that our preparations in Hampton Roads were ultimately unnecessary (for this storm).

That said... hurricane season is just beginning. And there will be more. The number of people I'll trust when it comes to telling me how to prepare for an oncoming storm has dwindled to basically NOAA and anyone who trusts NOAA. Even the Weather Channel, while better than most, gets an eyebrow. Because while I am always ready to hope for the best and expect the worst, the trend of catastrophic headlines for clicks is really seeping into areas where it shouldn't.

This will be an old-hat reminder for some and new news for others. Before I started working for entertainment news websites and publishing fiction, I spent just shy of ten years at a muggle news desk. I'm not going to say which because I'm about to talk smack about the editor.

I learned a lot of things on this job with regards to news feeds, writing in different styles, working to deadlines, handling ridiculous comments sections, and what have you. But I also learned what kind of things I hated and won't put up with, one being clickbait. I was working this job during the early days of clickbait as we know it, though that doesn't mean there hasn't always been a tendency to catastrophize for headlines. That's old news.

One of my standards is a writer is that, if I want to catch eyes with a headline, I do so with humor or with truth. And it's quite true that we as writers only have a few seconds to convince you to read our article, so a banger of a headline is essential.

Hyperbole can work if it's funny and obviously not true. For example, I once did a news piece on anime localization company Discotek licensing "basically everything." The company is known among anime fans for its massive release slates and its willingness to pick up shows regardless of age or perceived mainstream appeal. This particular article came after they'd laid out a breathless hour of announcements at a convention. Was it 100% accurate? No. Did it deliver a message from which accuracy could easily be pulled? Yes.

That's a far cry from telling every region within spitting distance of a storm that death is at hand.

If anything, the more serious a storm is, the less ridiculous the headlines need to be. These are people whose homes are in the line of something they can't stop. They need to know if they need to run, cover their windows, buy bottled water, stay put, whatever. They are making these decisions under duress, with only a few days to do so.

I think of Sagas of Sundry, my absolute favorite instance of watching other people play tabletop games. Each season is a horror game, with decisions made by pulls from a giant Jenga tower. The DM, Ivan, does not let up as these pulls are being made. He hounds the player with horrifying sound effects, intrusive thoughts, and continuing action as they try to steady their hands. This is all while doing something that will dictate whether their character survives the game.

For immersive horror storytelling, hounding a terrified person in the middle of life-or-death actions is nail-biting action. If you're doing it while they're boarding up their windows, you're a jerk.

We don't need someone over our shoulders every five seconds as we secure our belongs, asking us to contemplate our fate. We don't need mass media what-ifs as we decide whether or not to evacuate. We need access to objective reports with numbers, maps, and updates, and no storytelling on the side. Anything else is simply cruel.

I can say pretty safely that I suffered more from the anxiety I got from news reports and well-meaning friends than I will from Florence this weekend. Again, I can't say the same for my friends in the Carolinas, some of whom fared all right and others of whom have some creative planning and budgeting to do.

But the "If it bleeds, it leads" mentality should not be applied to acts of God or other situations that may affect life and livelihood. Even for those right in the middle of the action. Especially those.

I once had to explain the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" to a grown woman, but I'm assuming I don't have to re-tell it to the majority of you. The more we hear the alerts for no good reason (or in this case, for clickbait reasons), the less likely we are to listen.

I've had out-of-state friends ask me why the hell we don't evacuate when we're told there's a death spiral coming, why we can't be bothered to shift until we're given a zone number and the literal governor tells us it is mandatory that we leave the area. Because the news tells us that every spiral is a death spiral. Because if we evacuated for every storm they told us was going to cause cataclysmic devastation, we'd never sit still for seven months. And because frankly we can trust an official state of emergency more than the literal Weather Channel.

This is what portions of North Carolina got. They deserved clear, accurate, non-fearmongering reporting so they could make their choices competently. They deserved it even more than we did in Virginia because they had more to lose this time. The worst anyone in my area suffered was a bit of basement flooding and an overturned trash can. There's not a lot of ways to plan wrong for that. Even with people yelling at us that destructive Category 5 winds were going to cause destruction the likes of which had never been seen before in Hampton Roads, the worst we'd get from them being wrong was a panic attack.

Which ain't fun. Don't get me wrong.

Yes. I am grateful that overplanning was the worst I got. But this is our first R month and there is more to come. Sweet Jesus, all I want is fewer colorful adjectives and more common sense. The ironic thing about selling these storms big is that it undermines what a big deal they actually are. And scaring the locals shitless isn't going to make us safe.

Please. If you work for a news outlet that reports storms or disasters of any kind that require preparation, do your part to do less scaring, more objective reporting. Trust me. You don't need to scare us to get us to look at news about a storm coming our way. We're looking.

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