Winter is coming

Every winter the same story shows up on repeat. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. But then if you follow the news you’re certain to have heard this one before. Winter is is going to be bad, very bad. It is going to be the worst winter in 50-100 years, maybe even ‘since record began’. Start worrying.

This week the Irish and UK media have had us on high alert over the looming winter. The real story is that it’s quite a mild Autumn to be fair, but there‘s not much to talk about in that. So the media have come over all Ned Stark and remind us that winter is coming. In 2010 we actually did have one of the worst winters on record, and 2011 the media largely a reflected on last year with some minor ‘fears’.  A sort of collective in-breath. And 2012 the focus was on Eastern Europe’s freezing temperatures. But since then each winter we are treated to these annual, ‘could it be’ wind-ups.

The news media tend to distance themselves from actually making the prediction, claiming no authority but citing the experts who each year feed them the same story: it’s going to be bad. Many of the headlines are littered with uncharacteristically indefinite words for newsmakers like ‘ could be in for it’ or ‘there are fears’.

And while the effort to prepare the nation for the worst is admirable, when you examine the pattern of reportage against what actually happens, a little more scepticism and little less panic might be in order. Here are some samples:

Winter 2013 – bad, just bad.

  • Two years ago the Herald predicted the worst winter on record as well as “horror freeze and potentially “record-breaking” snowfall.”
  • A weather guru told the Examiner 2013 was definitely going to be just awful and it was going to last for ages.

Winter 2014 – The polar vortex will freeze us all.

Winter 2015 – birds arrive early, panic ensues.

Thejournal.ie’s coverage is fairly reasonable and Waterford Whisperer News deadpan take on the coverage pretty much nails it: ‘Winter Expected to be Cold’

But what frequently happens with these articles is they ask a threatening question, distance themselves by letting you decide, and then stack up one-sided evidence for it citing the experts, all the while relying on ‘the fears’ for ever having an expected seasonal change to a top-tier news story. And this recipe doesn’t just apply to the weather, it is seen in health and science reportage too.

This winter may very well be the worst, but then even if it is, I suspect next year we’ll be hearing it will be worse again.

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