The Ethics of "Storm Porn"
I first notice the hashtag #stormporn a few minutes ago when tweet titan Jeff Jarvis used it.
CNN guy standing in water when he could be standing on the pier right next to him. Needless, showoff idiocy. #stormporn
A quick search showed a flood (pardon the easy metaphor) of tweets and retweets describing what a Canadian reporter explained thus:
In an effort to grab higher ratings and boost advertising in a fiercely competitive market, some television stations are being accused of exaggerating, dare we say hyping, their weather forecasts.
Crippling ice storms, devastating tsunamis and powerful hurricanes enthral viewers like a drawn-out O.J. Simpson trial or the heart-wrenching coverage of 9/11. Hurricane Katrina had us mesmerized for weeks – and the ad revenue flowed.
It used to be that weather forecasters were criticized for getting it wrong. Now, in true Chicken Little style, it's being suggested they're consistently overstating their predictions – the depth of snow, the severity of wind-chill factors – urging the audience to brace for the worst.
David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment Canada, calls it "storm porn."
The ethical implications are dual, are they not? First, it's a simple matter of factual accuracy, of either choosing to emphasize the most dire possibilities of potential weather disaster or, even more culpable, making stuff up. Second, it suggests one of journalism's numerous dirty little secrets, that journalists both yearn for and revel in disasters because the high drama implicit in such events if communicated bravely and well can make careers.( Lord knows I was thrilled with the Loma Prieta earthquake - instinctively, not intentionally, and only after determining me and mine were safe - and being lead writer on the collapse of the Cypress Structure was probably the highlight of my career.)
In this second case, we may be dealing with the difference between thought and action. Is there a moral problem - and morals and ethics aren't the same thing, right? - in having low or mixed motives while doing your job well? That is, if you do thorough, responsible, useful newswork, it really doesn't matter if your heart is cold and dark and your motive is building your brand?
I suppose the CNN reporter standing in water is an example of the first ethical lapse. I can't think there's much point in standing in water just to show that you can't walk on it, unless you spell your pronoun with a capital letter.
Discuss among yourselves, as they say.
Addendum: Does the following have an ethical dimension? I'm still thinking. *Warning: brief nudity.*