Reflecting on media coverage of Irma

Published 6:07 pm Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Waking up this morning, it probably feels more like Monday than Wednesday, due to the short week many have had due to Hurricane Irma. We were lucky in LaGrange to have avoided the worst of the conditions, and overall I think it’s safe to say that the United States as a whole avoided what could’ve been a far worse result.

Several people died in both Florida and Georgia as a result of the hurricane, and even one death is too many. However, it could’ve been much, much worse, and thankfully it was not.

As my family from out of town watched Sunday as Hurricane Irma neared the coast of Florida — farther from their home in Ormond Beach than expected — the topic of conversation shifted toward how the media covered the storm.

It quickly turned into a debate about whether the media should sensationalize major events in order to amplify the dangers, or whether news organizations should simply report the facts and let people decide for themselves.

I’ll always be on the latter side of that argument.

At times, you’ll see the national media use emotions to describe the hurricane. As the editor of a newspaper, that bothers me more than it’ll bother many others. I don’t think it’s the media’s job to tell you how to feel about something.

It’s our job to give you the facts and to leave it at that. Our information at the LaGrange Daily News came directly from the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center, and we kept calling the weather office in Peachtree City throughout the weekend to get an updated forecast for Troup County.

Here in LaGrange, we were never going to receive the brunt of the storm, but there were dangers associated with the wind and rain that came through our area on Monday. The dozens of trees and power lines that fell reinforce how bad things could’ve gotten, but thankfully Irma had weakened to a tropical storm by the time it moved into our area.

Of course, it’s all about perspective.

To some, the storm was simply wind and rain and a day off work or school. To others — those that had a tree fall on their property or who lost power for a day — it was much worse.

I actually woke up in the middle of the night Friday and began debating whether we’d pushed the storm too hard or simply not enough in Saturday’s newspaper. It’s not uncommon for me to wake up rethinking how we laid out the paper — hours too late — but this was a unique situation.

Atlanta had never been under a tropical storm warning before Irma, and I’d venture to guess that Troup County had never been under one either. We made sure to explain what that meant because many of our readers haven’t been through a tropical storm before.

Sometimes the most difficult part of this job is finding the balance between telling people what they need to know, while also getting the message out in a way that is compelling. Often, the national media chooses to do that in ways we never would, such as calling Irma terrifying or scary.

I’d rather us report the actual facts — the wind speeds, the probability of tornadoes, the amount of rain we can expect, etc., — than to tell people something they already know. Saying hurricanes are scary is like saying race cars are fast.

We chose to stick to the facts, and will always treat our reporting that way. People in Troup County seemed to heed the warnings. Most stores ran out of bread, ice and propane as people prepared for the worst, and no one was seriously injured as people stayed off the roadways.

We’re glad people prepared. It’s always best to be on the safe side, just in case the storm had caused a massive power outage in our area or the winds had caused major damage.

And to think, the people of Troup County got the message without us giving Irma human emotions or sending a reporter out into the brunt of the winds and rain while going live on social media.