Wading Into the Floodwaters

by Dan Ward
If you have 10-15 minutes, read this great Forbes blog post by Larry Olmsted, describing the breathless coverage of the Great Memphis Flood.
Larry was in Memphis, standing alongside weather reporters from all the major networks. But instead of putting on his hip waders to step into the flooded downtown streets, he stepped back a few hundred yards and noticed that the flood actually impacted only one portion of one street. The flooded downtown streets were dry.
The story caught me by surprise, because I also had read and seen the news reports about the devastating flooding in downtown Memphis. But as Olmsted reports, only one stretch of a road alongside the river was closed to traffic, downtown remained unaffected, all but one tourist attraction remained open and the city’s largest annual event moved forward as scheduled.
Unfortunately, Beale Street was less crowded than normal, the bars and restaurants saw less business and hotels kept the “vacancy” signs lit. In Olmsted’s words, “I think it is safe to say that the damage to the city from the storm will be less than the economic damage from coverage of the storm.”
This is not to minimize the impact of the flood in other areas of Memphis and all along the Mississippi. But why not cover the very real impacts of the flood on residential areas instead of exaggerating the minor impacts in downtown?
We lived through a very similar scenario for Beaches of South Walton on Florida’s Northwest Gulf Coast, where 24-hour news coverage of the Deepwater Horizon incident convinced many that the beaches were coated in oil, when in fact beachgoers continued to enjoy sun and sand each and every day.
When faced with journalistic hyperbole, it’s our job as professional communicators to show our most important audiences the big picture, rather than a collection of snapshots. It requires honesty, transparency and a willingness at times to openly contradict the narrative being shared on network TV.

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