The Incremental Demise of Sensationalism

So much of what we see today is based on form of sensationalism. In the startup world, we call it virality. It's measured by our eyeballs, page clicks, our attention, google rankings, and how much we share content. For traditional media, it's their last ditch effort to survive. Everything is breaking news or utterly shocking or greatest of all time. As a society, we are slowly starting to catch on, and when we do, we get really pissed off about it.

The Blizzard of 2015 was the perfect example of this.


Yes, the blizzard instantly had its own hashtag. And yes, the blizzard actually turned out to be a blizzard after all. Although things in NYC were relatively peaceful, Long Island and New England got crushed with 20" to 30" of snow. From what I heard, most places were very prepared for the storm, and that is what is really important here. However, there were still massive amounts of sensationalism at its finest.

NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio was leading the charge calling this the worst snowstorm in the history of NYC. All over the news you could see video and images of him in his snow coat rallying the troops. It felt more of a publicity stunt than anything. He told anyone who would listen:

"My message for New Yorkers is prepare for something worse than we have ever seen before."

That's a pretty damn bold statement as NYC has seen a lot. The Onion wrote an amazing piece about "The Furious Hoarfrost" and the mayor jokingly responded by producing a "dramatic reading" of The Onion's article.

The European Method

First, let me state, I know nothing about what is required to be a meteorologist. That said, I was pretty embarrassed for some of these folks who made themselves look like fools. There was a segment on the News 12 NJ station that made me giggle out of pure incompetence.

The weatherman stood in front of a screen which showed forecasted weather predictions that were much lower than anything I had seen. This particular forecast called for 8" to 12" of snow for most of NJ and NYC -- greatly lower than the 24" to 36" predicted everywhere else. The weatherman said:

"What you see here is the European Method. It has been historically much more accurate at predicting these types of storms. I think this is very conservative. I think we are looking at numbers that could be double what this is predicting."

Oh. Really weatherman? Your predictions are more accurate than the scientific method that has historically proven to be much more accurate. Really? Or... You want shock and awe. You need this storm to be double the scientific prediction so you can get your 15 minutes of fame, so your news channel can get some more eyeballs, so you can capitalize on the situation.

I give them credit for even showing it, but it was after that segment that I went back to business as usual realizing that this was truly being blown way out of proportion. To be fair, I was completely underprepared as always except for the fact that I have Jeep Grand Cherokee with a full tank of gas -- I feel that's all the prepration I really need.

One and Done

The problem with sensationalism is that you only get to cry wolf once. Once you rally the troops and your claims turn out to be wildly blown out of proportion, you've lost your credibility. Nobody is going to listen to you next time. This scares me for the next time there is an actual disaster.

As more people become immune to sensationalistic media, it forces the media to double down their efforts. The next headline has to be even more scandalous, more titillating, more outrageous. This leads us to the downward death spiral that will be the end of sensationalism, and hopefully to a more accurate and honest portrayal of the news.