How much Harvey coverage is enough?

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OK, people are going to start throwing brickbats at me for being mean and uncaring, an apathetic monster.

But I’m not. In fact, I have relatives I saw just the other day down at the beach who have thus far been unable to return to their homes in Lake Charles. I get the human cost. I care.

I’m just asking, how much coverage of Hurricane Harvey do we need? And my tentative answer is, “Maybe a little less than we’re getting.” Or maybe the same amount, played a little bit differently. Or maybe I’m wrong. It’s just a gut thing, based on my experience the last few days.

I ask this as a guy who has spent most of his life as a newspaper editor, figuring out how best to deploy finite resources — people, space, time. You can’t cover everything, so what will you cover, and to what extent? And how will you present it?

I was part of the team at The State that was a runner-up for the Pulitzer in 1989 for our coverage of Hugo (we’d have won it, too, if San Francisco hadn’t had an earthquake in the middle of the World Series). I’m proud of that wall-to-wall coverage that went on for days, weeks, while our state struggled to recover.

But as someone who is sitting outside the affected area, looking at national media outlets, I have to think the coverage, and/or the play, may be a tad excessive.

You may recall — if you’ve read anything other than Harvey coverage — that a lot of people accused Trump of burying the pardon of Joe Arpaio by doing it as the storm bore down on the Texas coast. But here’s the thing about that: News organizations can still cover such a political development, and play it prominently — if they choose to.

The last couple of days, I’ve started wondering about news organizations’ willingness to do so.

In the past day, North Korea fired a missile over Japan. Meanwhile, it was learned that a guy who worked for Trump reached out to a high Russian official for help in building a Trump tower in Moscow at the height of last year’s election.

You will say, But that’s just petty politics, and we need to take a break from that stuff when there’s something that affects real people happening — such as a big storm.

Well, yes and no. Assertions such as that always bring me back to the First Amendment. The reason the press has that special protection in the Constitution is so that it can make you aware of things you need to know in order to be an informed, empowered voter.

The kinds of decisions that you, as a citizen, are called on to make with regard to Harvey, are limited. You can volunteer to go help, if you see a way you can do so and make a real contribution. You can give money, or donate food or clothing, or give blood, if those things are identified as needs. You can tell your congressman you want him to vote to fully fund FEMA.

And I think that coverage that a) communicates the situation fully, and b) clearly shows how you can help is all to the good. Give us that coverage, and plenty of it.

But cover the other stuff, too. And, yes, that is definitely happening, or I wouldn’t know about those things. But I get the impression that these other important stories are getting pushed to the margins.

Look at the home pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times, above and below. Those screenshots contain nothing but headlines about Harvey. If you scrolled down on both of those pages, for at least another half a screen, it would be all Harvey.

And to me, that seems a bit… off. What’s wrong with letting people know, in their first glance at your news offerings, that there are other important things happening as well — such as the aforementioned missile over Japan? Harvey could still get the biggest headlines, and the most of them. But give us some balance, some perspective.

It’s a big planet, and most of it is not affected by Harvey. There’s a lot of other stuff going on. Don’t hold back from telling us anything we need to know about Harvey. But tell us the other stuff as well, and don’t bury it.

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23 thoughts on “How much Harvey coverage is enough?

  1. Doug Ross

    Just placing this here :

    From Reason.com:

    “Federal Emergency Management Agency data shows that from 1978 through 2015, 3.8 percent of flood insurance policyholders have filed repetitively for losses that account for a disproportionate 35.5 percent of flood loss claims and 30.5 percent of claim payments, Starbuck says. Most of these properties were grandfathered in before the NFIP issued its flood insurance rate maps. The NFIP is not permitted to refuse them insurance or charge them rates based on the actual risks they face. Clearly, taxpayers should not be required to subsidize people who choose to build and live on flood plains. When Congress reauthorizes the NFIP, it should initiate a phase-in of charging grandfathered properities premiums commensurate with their risks. This will likely lower the market values of affected homes and businesses and thus send a strong signal to others to avoid building and living in such risky areas.”

    As for whether there is too much Harvey news, yes. Sex used to sell. Now it’s weather.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Some people think weather is sexy, apparently. I want to go on record as saying I am not among them.

      Don’t get me wrong: Cover it, and cover it thoroughly.

      But speaking of sex, at some point it seems like it descends into a sort of disaster voyeurism. Look at these people’s misery! Look, look, look!…

      Reply
  2. JesseS

    Dumb question but why is it called “wall-to-wall coverage”? I’m only asking because it sounds like industry jargon that etymologically probably has a very different root from what I’d assume.

    Reply
      1. JesseS

        Ok, I was imagining some scenario where it went back to printing plates and rooms with the presses covered wall-to-wall.

        Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “Plastered.” I wonder what it is about people who want to dis a newspaper’s play decision. They always use that odd word, “plastered.” You put a story in the paper, and you’ve “plastered” it — usually “plastered across the front page” — even when it was just a one- or two-column headline. It’s not a term a journalist would ever use, because it makes no sense. It doesn’t refer in any way to any action involved in putting the story in the paper. Once, in the early days of cold type, the type had hot wax applied to the back of it to cause it to adhere to the page. So, some variation of “waxed,” maybe. But not “plastered.”

      I think it has something to do with the sound of the word. It sounds like you’re expressing disgust, so people wishing to strike out at the paper with particular vehemence like the word, odd as it is.

      But to your point — no, I’m afraid not. For the reasons I cited.

      Of course, the idea of what to do with a front page has changed considerably since I was the front-page editor at a couple of papers in the 80s. At one, a paper about the size of the Myrtle Beach Sun News, we were all about local, although national and international items would appear on the front, too.

      The second, the paper in Wichita, was a better comparison to The State. It was the biggest paper in Kansas, and therefore had a stronger sense of itself as the newspaper of record. In those days, we knew this would be most readers’ only source of print news. So the lede story was the biggest thing going on in the world, and the rest of the page was a mix of the important and the merely interesting (which were only occasionally the same thing), local and national, hard news and a feature or two. “Mix” was an important concept. You wanted to make sure you properly play what was important, while at the same time providing some variety. We agonized over the way we played things on the front. A lot of discussion went into it, and after a big national or international news day I’d get copies of other papers and put them on a wall, and I’d lead a discussion with the other editors about how we did.

      We had several stories that dominated the front during my time there — the one that stands out as the biggest was the Challenger explosion. Even then, though, we might have still had one or two unrelated stories on the front — but it’s hard to remember now. Maybe not. If there was ever a day in that decade when one story (with its sidebars) should take the whole front, that was it.

      I was never the front page editor at The State, and the folks who did have that duty were never quite as obsessive about the way they played things, even back in the 80s when I arrived. For instance, The State never had a very strict definition of what the lede story was.

      Since then, the dynamics have changed considerably. First, the page is smaller. Most newspapers have gotten at least a column (out of six) narrower. In the 80s, the target was always about six stories — sometimes five, sometimes seven. That’s why when I do my VFPs here, there are usually six items. Now, what with all the promos of internal comment, particularly sports, and the narrower page, you’ll sometimes see only two or three stories on the page. So you don’t have much of a mix to work with.

      Further, editors now know that people have a huge array of other sources, including text sources, for national and international news. So they de-emphasize it. The most important story of the day is as likely as not on page 4, while the front showcases exclusively local copy, not what is most important.

      So basically, were I a front page editor today, I’d be considering factors other than those that guided me in the ’80s. If I had a free hand, I’d eliminate a lot of the promotional material and make sure to have at least four, maybe five stories on the front. I’d be mindful that readers had probably seen the national and international stories elsewhere, but I’d probably put more such stories on the front anyway, to provide a sense of perspective — just not as many as I did decades ago.

      And I might have a Harvey story among those four or five, but no more than that, unless it’s a slow news day. There are too many other stories to tell…

      Reply
      1. Claus2

        Wow… all that from one word. Must have been a sore spot.

        Now if I could just get through this puzzle in less than five minutes that you’ve plastered to the bottom of your page in order to post.

        Reply
        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          It’s irritating, but not a big deal. It’s an immediate identifier, though. It identifies the person as someone who has never worked in journalism.

          Sort of like “write-up.” That’s another odd expression that you would never, ever hear from a journalist. I’ve wondered where that comes from, too. People use it where a journalist would say “story,” or “piece”…

          Reply
  3. bud

    Lots and lots of coverage of the Arpaio, Trump/Russia and North Korean missiles on both MSNBC and Fox. The Weather Channel covers this wall to wall of course, that’s what they do, but other TV media outlets are pretty balanced. (Since you don’t watch TV news how would you even know what’s being covered?)

    Reply
  4. bud

    I actually agree pretty much with Doug. The flood insurance is sort of welfare for the wealthy. But I’m not sure this tells the whole story. I was watching an interview today that said if someone files a claim for a third time they will no longer be reimbursed. That apparently doesn’t apply to grandfathered property. But this will take care of itself over time.

    Reply
    1. Mark Stewart

      The problem here is going to be beyond those covered by flood insurance. The question also becomes to what extent do we collectively have to cover those who chose not to adequately insure themselves against loss?

      The comparisons with health insurance – and the diametrically opposed views that are going to be argued – is going to be irony-inducing.

      Don’t get me wrong; this is a tragedy in Houston. A truly epic storm. However, these have in the last couple of decades become the norm.

      Whether the federal government pays people off for their losses or not; the state and local planning officials are going to have to buck the residential home builders and start getting tougher on building in flood prone areas. That just never works out…

      Reply
      1. Claus2

        If they got tough on home builders and not allowed housing in flood plains… there’d basically be no New Orleans. And that part of the state would likely smell less like a well used urinal.

        Reply
  5. Dixieviking

    Brad, Here’s a new thought. (For me, anyway.) Has the newspaper editors become influenced by the TV news coverage? In the heyday of the newspapers, they competed with each other. Radio had few newscasts. Newspapers published many daily editions. TV News has been a major disruption. Could today’s newspaper editors, in allocating print space in their budget meetings, be biased because of what the TV’s did or did not say? I recall visiting The State Newspaper news room and I was floored with the sight of the four large TV monitors hung high tuned into news shows.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I don’t watch TV news. Which presents a different kind of problem… so many people DO get news that way, that they tend to perceive issues differently from the way I do, which can make it hard to get on the same page and have a meeting of minds….

      Reply
  6. Norm Ivey

    I find weather very sexy, but more because of the physics that causes it rather than the destruction it wreaks. I wish they would spend more time explaining why things happen–like why Harvey stalled so badly right over Houston. Or talk about how a city makes things worse in a deluge. Or more specifics about how the hospital complex in the middle of Houston managed the water by planning ahead years ago. That kind of stuff. (Maybe someone did–I haven’t seen much except The News Hour the last several days.)

    On the other hand, I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking at YouTube videos posted by people in Port Aransas, just east of Corpus Christie. My niece and her family live there, and their apartment was rather exposed. They are all safe in San Antonio with her husband’s sister, but they can’t get back to the island to check on things and may not be able to for some time.

    Reply
    1. clark surratt

      Norm Ivey, there have been some good pieces about “how a city makes things worse in a deluge.” Much of Houston, which has no local zoning restrictions per se, is built around a bayou and the terrain is flat for miles. You cover your trees and wetlands with thousands of rooftops, parking lots and wide roadways, your water collects quickly. Houston floods frequently, so the big one was a matter of time. Aptly enough, the river that bisects much of the city is the Buffalo Bayou. Lots more details, but the article I read painted a pretty clear picture to me.

      Reply
  7. Brad Warthen Post author

    Another thing about this coverage — too many news people have memories that are way too short.

    I’ve seen references to the fact that Harvey has turned to poor Lousiana, which suffered so from Katrina.

    Yeah, OK — but what about Betsy?

    I was there for that one, in September 1965. The eye of the storm passed right over us.

    We lived less than a block from the levee in a rickety two-story frame building that I think had been built as barracks in WWII, and was later converted to apartments. We rode it out in that apartment. My Dad wasn’t with us because he had to stay with his ship. (I “remembered” erroneously that they had taken it to sea, but he told me just the other day they rode it out tied to the dock, which surprised me. After the storm, he said, it was tricky to get ashore because the wharf was no longer connected to the land.)

    I guess we were kind of lucky. The only damage to our apartment was a small rip in the screen of our screened-in porch.

    But loads of people were made homeless by the storm and they came to live around us for the next few months. This Navy base — located in Algiers, just across the river from downtown New Orleans — was practically shut down at this point in its history (the only ships were my Dad’s destroyer and an old sub, mainly used for training reservists), and had lots of vacant buildings, and vast fields where I suppose other buildings had been torn down.

    So we had a lot of room for refugees. Oh, and by the way, that was the simple, plain word we used. By the time Katrina rolled around, that had sort of become a word you didn’t use any more. I’m still not clear on why — what’s wrong with being a person seeking refuge?

    Anyway, it was a big deal, and I’d like to see Betsy get a mention now and then…

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      By the way, reading about Hurricane Betsy in Wikipedia, I ran across this:

      One of the barges contained 602 tons of deadly chlorine gas contained in cylinders. Chlorine gas, which was used frequently as a chemical weapon in World War I, is a powerful irritant that can inflict damage to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs, and (at high concentrations and prolonged exposure) cause death by asphyxiation. It was estimated that the amount of chlorine loaded on the barge was enough to kill 40,000 people. The barge had sunk near Baton Rouge, where an estimated 300,000 people lived. The residents in the harbor area were evacuated until the barge was recovered. President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the Navy and Army Engineers to find and raise the barge. While it took months to locate and make the appropriate plans for raising the barge, the actual process of raising it took around two hours. The barge was reportedly recovered, without any problems, on November 18, 1965….

      That reference to the Navy? That was my Dad’s ship, USS Hyman, of which he was the XO. They were sent up the river to deal with that. They found the barge with their sonar.

      Reply
  8. Norm Ivey

    That’s what I mean, exactly. Thanks.

    We do tend to build things in places that don’t make much sense…

    Reply

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