There’s a reason emergency notices are written precisely, succinctly and featuring only the most vital information. They’re intended to guide people through emergency situations, from administering life-saving aid to evacuating entire territories. Can you imagine what would happen if those notices were written in a sensational way?
We saw something similar with the news about Hurricane Maria, as some media outlets used dramatic and imprecise terms to describe the forecast. We thought a comparison between the most and least spun information sources (The Washington Post and NOAA, respectively) might bring the point home.
A dramatic lead
The wicked 2017 hurricane season is set to deliver its next two punishing blows from Hurricanes Maria and Jose.
That’s the Post’s lead sentence. Compare it to the opening sentence of NOAA’s advisory: “…Maria becomes an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane…the eye and intense inner core is expected to pass near Dominica during the next few hours…”
NOAA’s is specific and to-the-point, providing two crucial bits of information: Maria’s category upgrade and the expected trajectory of its eye and inner core. As for “extremely dangerous,” it reads like spin, but it’s actually a term used in the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale (see Context for more details).
When imprecision makes a difference
The worst part of the storm is also likely to pass a good deal south of beleaguered Barbuda and Antigua, reeling from Hurricane Irma, but they may still get brushed by some strong wind gusts and heavy showers.
The imprecisions make a one-to-one comparison difficult with NOAA’s advisory — which part of the storm is the “worst” and how far is “a good deal”? The closest data NOAA provided to the Post’s was, “the center of Maria will move near Dominica and the adjacent Leeward Islands during the next few hours, over the extreme northeastern Caribbean Sea …” Is that what the Post meant?
Drama + speculation = bad news
[St. Croix] was one of the few U.S. Virgin Islands that was spared Irma’s wrath, but may well get hammered by Maria.
“Hammered” as in see 6 to 9 feet of possible storm surge, or 10 to 15 inches of rain? St. Croix and others may be directly affected by Maria, so it’s better if they can prepare with accurate information, rather than gauge the possible effects based on vague, emotional descriptions. For those not in the storm path, having the data would help them be informed about what is going on.
Small imprecision, big implication
The islands directly affected by the storm’s core face the likelihood of destructive winds of 120 to 150 mph and 6 to 12 inches of rain … which will cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides.
NOAA’s advisory said, “Rainfall on all of these islands could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides.” The seemingly small imprecision could have real effects on people’s decision making process and encourage fearful responses to the information.
The more the media spins the news, the more we grow accustomed to it. But especially in situations like these, when some people are making what could be life-and-death decisions, and others just want to be informed, it’s important to leave imprecision and the more sensational aspects of news reporting out of it.
Written by Leah Mottishaw
Edited by Ivy Nevares Jens Erik Gould
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Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News