As Tropical Storm Lee swirls in the Atlantic, media outlets seem determined to pump it full of as much warm, moist air as possible, inflating the potential for disaster despite predictions showing little chance that the storm will have any impact on U.S. territories, particularly Florida. From NPR to CNN, and even here in Florida, our supposedly respectable newsrooms that claim they are built on “trust” are instead pushing heart-stopping headlines and deliberately obfuscating the truth, adding layers of unnecessary panic.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Lee’s impending catastrophe are greatly exaggerated. First, here are the facts: as of Wednesday afternoon, Hurricane Lee’s predicted path will likely take it well north of Puerto Rico and the Leeward Islands, before it starts to curve sharply northward. The storm is also highly likely to miss the Bahamas to the east, and only one model has the storm going near Bermuda, which is 650 miles east of the U.S. East Coast.
But don’t let reality spoil the mainstream media’s party. NPR got in on the action with a “just the scary facts, ma’am” headline declaring “Tropical Storm Lee will soon be a major hurricane — with 150 mph winds or more.” That story was followed by Axios with an equally spine-chilling bold print yarn: “Tropical Storm Lee expected to become an ‘extremely dangerous’ hurricane.” The language teeters on the edge of apocalyptic but conveniently leaves out that Lee will only be “extremely dangerous” to sailors bold enough to traverse the mid-Atlantic without checking the weather first.
Not to be outdone, CNN fired its own entry onto the internet, with a headline blaring: “Tropical Storm Lee is expected to rapidly intensify into an ‘extremely dangerous’ hurricane in the Atlantic by this weekend.” What’s missing? Just the important part about how it’s not going to impact a single home in the Continental United States, and possibly won’t make landfall anywhere as a hurricane.
But the national media aren’t the only ones playing dirty with the facts: the South Florida Sun Sentinel chose to up the ante with a headline that’s so over the top, it borders on parody: “Lee forecast to explode into major hurricane near the Caribbean.” If you thought property insurance was expensive in Florida already, just wait until an “exploding hurricane” makes landfall.
[Worth noting: Lee “exploded” into a hurricane earlier today and I gotta be honest, it just wasn’t that exciting.]
Then there are the subtle tricksters, like Daytona Beach’s WESH-TV, which adopted a more misleading approach: “Tropical Storm Lee may approach the southeastern U.S. as Category 4 hurricane.” Approach is the keyword here. Technically, the sun also “approaches” Florida every day. An accurate statement? Yes. Intentionally misleading? Also, yes.
Perhaps the worst offender in the “technically the truth but still lying through their teeth” department: USA Today. Their headline asked: “Hurricane Lee is forming: Will storm head toward Florida, East Coast?” After scrolling through a handful of sensationalized paragraphs establishing that yes, Tropical Storm Lee really is going to become a major hurricane with terrible winds and rain, the article then attempted to answer its own question, but just can’t come clean: “Long-range forecasts indicate that Lee will likely curve north before hitting Florida next week.”
Wait…what? Is it going to curve north and then hit Florida? Or is it going to curve north and not hit Florida at all? I’m just cynical enough to believe that USA Today’s “journalists,” people who are supposed to be experts at clear, factual writing, intentionally left it confusing to keep us on their page longer.
Finally, buried at the bottom of the article, USA Today finally lets its readers off the hook: “Lee is forecast to move northwest over the open Atlantic Ocean over the next few days and have only minimal impact on the islands of the Caribbean. Beyond that, all major hurricane models that meteorologists use to forecast storms indicate that Lee will recurve away from Florida. Looking even further ahead, the latest forecasts suggest Lee’s path could vary across a wide swath spanning from the U.S. East Coast northward to eastern Canada, or even skirt away from the coast entirely.”
It’s the media’s responsibility to inform and, at times, alert the public. But when alertness turns into constant click-bait alarmism, it’s a classic case of “The boy who cried wolf.”
Of course it’s important to prepare for potential risks, especially where significant weather events are concerned, but it’s equally crucial to avoid sending false alarms that ultimately undermine what little trust the media still enjoys. When it comes to Tropical Storm Lee, the forecast might predict a hurricane, but it doesn’t predict disaster for U.S. territories. Sadly, readers have to invest far more time and effort to find that out from news outlets that constantly abuse the trust they once enjoyed.