September 16, 2018

Catastrophic Overuse

Is it possible that the media is tending to excessively use the terms catastrophe and catastrophic in described major weather events such as Hurricane Florence?

For example, watching my colleagues at the Weather Channel, the adjective catastrophic was used nearly continuously:  Florence would bring catastrophic winds, catastrophic storm surge, catastrophic rains, and catastrophic flooding.






Many environmental advocacy websites, such as Grist, went full into catastrophe mode with Florence.

Now when is the use of catastrophe and catastrophic suitable?   Let's check the venerable Merriam Webster dictionary for guidance (see below).   According to the dictionary, a catastrophe is a momentous tragic event, with effects ranging from extreme misfortune to utter overthrow or ruin.


The origin of the  English word catastrophe is  from the Greek word katastrophÄ“ ‘overturning, sudden turn,’ from kata- ‘down’ + strophÄ“‘turning’ 

Is a category 1 hurricane that was rapidly downgraded to a tropical storm, which produced a very modest storm surge and few reports of hurricane-forced winds over land a catastrophe?  Yes, there has been heavy rain and flooding in some areas, but such flooding is not unusual in an area periodically hit by tropical storms (e.g., Hurricane Matthew struck the region with similar impacts in 2016).

Catastrophe is far more appropriate for major, life-upending events, such was what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans or Hurricane Maria's effect on  Puerto Rico.  Those were true catastrophes.
New Orleans after Katrina. This is what catastrophe looks like
The National Weather Service is generally far more sober and responsible in their use of adjectives.  Words like dangerous, highly dangerous, life-threatening are more often used by National Weather Service forecasters.   They tend not to use catastrophe for more modest events.

As an aside, here is a graphic from GoogleTrends that shows the frequency of search including catastrophic.  Big increase with Florence, which is declining now as the storm fades away.


The use of over-the-top adjectives for major, but fairly regular, events undermines our ability to communicate the potential for truly disruptive storms.  Crying wolf will desensitize people to our messaging, endangering them when the really big events are predicted.   

Using screaming words like "catastrophic" may garner more clicks and viewership for a while...but in the end it will turn folks off.

22 comments:

  1. Perhaps one man's catastrophe is another mans routine but I'd hate to have a routine that is best described as catastrophe.

    Then again, if communication is struggling to find the right words, maybe a visual graphic will convey meaning better:


    https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/the-future-of-weather-reports-new-tech-creates-hurricane-florence-simulation-1.4824305

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  2. Mistrusting the MSM, part 1,003 - the Weather Channel has been outed so many times for outright fakery in their histrionic reports that it boggles the mind why they keep doing it, but the ratings must be worth all that chicanery:

    Here we are just yesterday -

    https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/tanyachen/people-are-cracking-up-at-this-weather-reporter-being

    What's sad is that back in the early days of cable TV, The Weather Channel was objective, judicious in their predictions and reportage, and quite useful. Now they've degenerated into a bad carny act. Putting names to what used to be called storms, shouting over 30 MPH wind gusts, and acting like Thunder Snow is some kind of sign of the coming Armageddon.

    https://www.usmagazine.com/entertainment/news/worlds-most-excited-weatherman-loses-his-mind-over-thundersnow-video-2015162/

    This guy does this every winter.

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    Replies
    1. To be fair, for a weather nerd, thubdersnow is high on the list of rare phenomena that would make one lose their mind over.

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  3. Yes, creating some kind of scalar index would be interesting. Pretty sure insurers have something that describes the expected impact in terms of lives and property damage, probably in dollar units.

    You could calibrate it so that Katrina or Andrew is 100. Florence would be 15 centi-Katrinas then? :)

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  4. Eric - back in the old days John Coleman was hardly any paragon of fact or skill.

    But as you know that is beside the point. As Cliff has been indicating communication, be it of real or fake news, is highly reliant on eliciting the right intuition either by word or image. Whatever you think of the Weather Channels track record of reporting you have to admit if you actually watched the video that their first fairly conventional graphic was not nearly as effective as the one that followed in conveying the full import of what flooding really means at 3 feet, 6 feet or 9 feet.

    Effective communication nearly always levers emotion one way or the other. Dopamine just doesn't flow without it and without dopamine there is no salience. When communicating physical hazard one really needs to help the viewer imagine themselves exposed to the hazard. Maps and charts can convey statistics just fine but actual meaning in terms of risk remains only poorly realized as an abstraction. There is very little abstraction in grasping the full meaning of 9 feet of flood water in the way they portrayed it.

    Of course the cynics will say it is too graphic - it is too stimulating and manipulative. Well if a closer representation of the truth is too stimulating then perhaps that is because it bloody well should be!

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  5. If I am living in that area shown in the aerial photo in your blog post then I am feeling things are pretty catastrophic.....semantics aside.

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    1. That picture is New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. As Dr Mass mentioned its definitely under the "true catastrophe" classification and not the media hype one.

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  6. The media exaggerating? I'm shocked, shocked.

    To cut them some slack, as pointed out in your previous post, the models were almost unanimously overestimating the intensity and that part of the coast is woefully unprepared for a major blow.

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  7. I love that everyone is analyzing the communication of the latest hurricane. I think this is all good and constructive. If I, as a designer, were to communicate the threats and impacts of a storm, I would first start with some criteria. What needs to be communicated? When does it need to be communicated? And then you figure out how best to communicate the what and when so that people can make informed, rational (as much as humanly possible), decisions about actions to take. Even in this evaluation of communication we should have this list of criteria to use as a reference for communicating.

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  8. You stated the storm "produced a very modest storm surge". That storm surge broke the all-time record storm surge at Wilmington and at Beaufort. I suspect that for the residences of New Berm with the 10 feet of flood waters from the storm surge might disagree with your word choice.

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  9. No one has a routine that is best described as catastrophic because catastrophes are, by definition, out of the ordinary. Misusing a word in order to elicit the "appropriate" emotional response is ultimately problematic because doing so takes away from the precision of language - not to mention that it's intentionally deceptive. People communicate primarily using language rather imagery and it's important that the descriptive power of our principle method of communication not be diluted by careless word usage. Fortunately, The Weather Channel's propensity for sensationalizing is balanced by the more measured (and accurate) word choice used by NWS for those of us who prefer to gather information unfettered by exaggerated verbiage.

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  10. Only retrospective sorting of all the empirical data will determine what Florence was. There still needs to be the clean up and all that money, time and materials. Timber futures started to rise when it seemed that it was going to be a doomsday scenario. Category 1? Back to the downward trend they go. Ratings are money. Damage claims are money. Might as well keep communicating in the language of money. Thats all anyone cares about....


    Plus, you have to remember, people really don't give a crap about anyone past themselves and their immediate family at best. If an individual's home is destroyed, business destroyed, etc than that is probably considered a catastrophe on their scale. For them the hype was accurate. Nothing is broad brush anymore. The Media is tribal in its broadest sense but what they really want is to make you react emotionally on some personal level so you stay glued to the TV/internet.

    As far as the context of this thread, it is very true. The word "Catastrophe" should be reserved for the aftermath when there is more of a broad understanding of what has come to pass. Better usage of "Potentially destructive and life threatening" should be the proper syntax for something not fully understood.

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  11. Expanding on what BAMCIS posits, reports state Wilmington,NC, a community of 117,000, is currently unreachable by land, sea, or air, and without power. Let’s see how that resolves before choosing the label. Also, this is precisely the worry that all credible sources have been warning since the storm slowed down and stalled. Furthermore, it is my recollection that the early high probability predictions were that Florence was suppose to turn NE and miss hitting land. Very early predictions can produce complacency that creates the ennui that will be difficult to reverse as actual reality bears down.

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  12. We are talking about the Media? I no longer watch broadcast TV and simply follow Jeff Masters.

    I thought we were talking about the weather!

    What the Philippines just experienced would be a good topic, Cliff. Should we label it "Catastrophic" or not?

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  13. "...and not the media hype one." True, but the MSM was complicit in advancing a narrative that FEMA was at fault, despite the fact that the LA governor and the New Orleans mayor refused their requests for help until it was way too late. First responders in any natural disaster in the US are your local city government, then your county government, then your state government. FEMA knew how woefully unprepared New Orleans was, which is why they took the unprecedented step of asking to intervene even before Katrina hit and the National Guard was called in. Then we had the idiotic reportage that bodies were floating past the Superdome and mass murder was occurring everywhere, which was exposed as a blatant lie by the National Guard at the time:

    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/aug/16/hurricane-katrina-new-orleans-looting-violence-misleading-reports

    The MSM did the public no favors during Katrina, and their abysmal performance since then has only gotten miles worse. They've learned nothing.

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  14. I personally think the more important problem is the increased amount of rain fall, flooding, and so few people with flood insurance.

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  15. And, lest we forget, they sometimes get 'religion' by referring to the situation as approaching 'biblical proportions' when it comes to the amount of rain and flooding. With tongue firmly planted in my cheek I ask: Where is the separation of church and state (found no where in the Constitution) within the weather reporting?

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  16. This is an AWESOME debate about a CATASTROPHIC topic!!!!!!!!!

    Yes, sadly there are many superlatives that are overused these days to get clicks or viewers. Our beautiful language is being dismantled by tweets and soundbites. Sigh.

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  17. I hope everyone got to see the clip of the people walking around in shorts on their cellphone whilst the weather reporter was pretending to be blown away by the winds. Mainstream media wins the honesty awards yet again.

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  18. For all of you who agree with Cliff about overuse of the word catastrophe, Florence has killed over 40 people and economic loss is over $40 billion and climbing. It appears to be in the top 10 for hurricanes. I think that qualifies.

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  19. The parable of the little boy who cried wolf was written for good reason. Today’s never ending crisis mode of the mainstream media has caused most people to tune out or to ignore their hysteria. And in their relentless pursuit of the sensation, the media ignore and omit so much important information. And so everyone who stays tuned to typical media sources is ignorant to the true state of the world they must navigate.

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  20. For those who are paying attention to this "non-catastrophe", the death toll continues to climb and the flooding and water problems have not ended. Besides the deaths, there are continuing to be huge financial and property losses, much of which is not covered by insurance because they are not covered by the federal government's flood insurance program. This is a similar situation to Houston, although not as bad. If the national media are to be faulted, it would be for lack of news coverage, not overly sensationalizing it.

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Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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