This past Friday evening as I was putting the finishing touches on my hurricane preparations, I made one last check of my email before packing up my computer and moving it to a safer spot. With Ike a mere few hours away, I found this lead article on AOL (see picture). Is it sensationalist? Definitely. Is it misleading to place the picture of the fellow standing in the spray of the Galveston seawall adjacent to a caption about a wall of water hitting Texas? Probably. You could tell the man was on the seawall if you know the Galveston seawall like most of us on the coast, or if you moused-over the picture and then it mentioned that it was a man on the seawall with the pre-storm waves splashing up, and not exactly a wall of water as referenced in the accompanying headline ... if you moused over the picture instead of, say, reading the headline.
I do not want to single out this AOL article as if it were the only sensationalist piece of hype I'd seen during my preparations for the hurricane. For the record, even the vast majority of those who rode out Ike on Galveston Island survived so they did not, after all, face certain death. Ike was repeatedly referred to in media reports as enormous, monstrous, and a variety of other adjectives playing up its impressive size and strength. Honestly, folks, it was a Category 2 storm in a zone where most things are rated Category 3 (though obviously not our power infrastructure). I do not mean to minimize the menace that was Ike, or the long night we all spent Friday night and into Saturday as the storm barreled through, or the hardships of days without power or any way to replace supplies of water or food or fuel -- which is still the situation in some places though in increasingly isolated pockets as the days go by. There were even a number of deaths, a few from the storm and possibly as many or more from misuse of generators / candles / power tools etc. afterwards. The deaths from the actual strike of Ike are still less than the deaths from the mass evacuation (note: not the storm but the evacuation) three years ago for Rita.
My point is this: panic, desperation, lack of information and poor planning have been responsible for more hurricane deaths around here than the actual hurricanes. To what extent is the media responsible for fueling that most deadly part of a disaster, namely panic, with its hysterical headlines? If someone went into a crowded movie house and yelled "Fire" hysterically rather than with rational instructions about proceeding calmly to the nearest exit, would that announcer be morally responsible if there were a trampling death during the panic?
My concern is this: the media have a theoretical job of passing along information. However, this is often eclipsed by the desire for ratings. Hype creates ratings, therefore the media creates hype. At what point do they (did they) cross the line to generating fear to rake in a bigger profit? In a dangerous situation, is the fearmongering-for-profit dynamic ethical?