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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 04:29 PM ET, 08/26/2011

Hurricane Irene’s path: Is the Weather Channel veering off course?

A Weather Channel news release lays out the station’s mission in covering Hurricane Irene:

For The Weather Channel Companies (TWCC), keeping people prepared and safe during severe weather events is the company’s number one priority. Therefore, the company is taking extensive measures across TV, online, mobile, radio and social media to keep viewers and users informed as Hurricane Irene progresses up the East Coast, affecting up to 55 million people.

That’s not just PR blather, either. In a noon interview, Bob Walker, executive vice president and general manager of network and content for the Weather Channel, said this to me before signing off: “Be safe.”

Some viewers out there, though, are getting a variation on that message from Weather Channel coverage. “Be scared” might just sum up the feeling, as reflected in a sampling of thoughts from Twitter this afternoon:

What are all these people talking about? Perhaps this passage from the Weather Channel Web site provides a clue:

Irene is a hurricane that poses an extraordinary threat and is one that no one has yet experienced in North Carolina to the mid-Atlantic to the Northeast and New England [emphasis added]. This includes Norfolk, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Hartford, and Boston.

Talk about a Categorical statement!

For more high-volume stuff, here’s a Weather Channel Web banner:

Is it all too much?

Local weatherman Bob Ryan says maybe. While expressing great admiration for Weather Channel hurricane expert Bryan Norcross, Ryan calls “pretty apocalyptic” his vision for the course of Irene.

Weather watchers with the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang pronounce a similar skepticism. Gang member Dan Stillman: “It’s not going to be unprecedented for North Carolina or even the mid-Atlantic. And given that it will probably be no worse than a low-to-mid-end Category 1 when it gets to New York City, it’s not going to be their Katrina — even though significant flooding and damaging winds are possible, both inland and especially toward the coast, in both the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast.”

That kind of talk doesn’t blow away the Weather Channel brain trust. Here’s why: This forecasting colossus has a bunker of 200 scientists and meteorologists looking at all the models. “It gives us a great advantage,” says content chief Walker. When asked about the people citing Weather Channel hysterics, Walker responded, “I can’t speculate as to what it is that they’re reacting to.” But: “Our people here are very, very cautious to make sure that our brand represents the best in quality...in being forthcoming and clear.”

So what accounts for the tone of the Weather Channel’s Irene coverage? Herewith a few considerations, as spelled out by Walker:

1) Irene is enormous, spanning about 500 miles;

2) Irene is headed for parts of the country that “have not seen a Category 1 or 2 hit them in decades and in some cases even longer,” says Walker;

3) The atmospheric conditions that would otherwise knock Irene out to sea “weren’t there,” says Walker.

Another point on the channel’s coverage: “All of our editorial discussions start by a full briefing by the meteorological team and our tone is determined based on what experts and scientists are telling us,” says Walker.

Whatever your take on the Weather Channel’s editorial tilt on Irene, the winds and rains and sandbags are good for business. On Wednesday, the station’s Web site scored 63 million page views and 12 million unique visitors; yesterday, 99 million page views and 16 million uniques.

With the crowds comes accountability: If the Weather Channel turns out to have overhyped Irene, next week will deliver some tough questions to the channel’s Atlanta headquarters. And let’s not consider the possibility that it’s underhyping things.

More PostLocal Hurricane Irene resources:

Full Hurricane Irene coverage with tracker, maps, and projections.

Live updates throughout the day.

Photos of the areas already impacted by Hurricane Irene.

By  |  04:29 PM ET, 08/26/2011

 
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