The media’s cognitive dissonance about the ‘snowpocalypse’

The effect of the ‘snowpocalypse’ in paralysing infrastructure in the last week in the Eastern United States and the UK is a political problem. But media coverage has simultaneously acknowledged and glossed over this reality.

A CNN interview with Time editor Belinda Luscombe discussed why austerity cuts are now seen as “a virtue”; 5 minutes later, New York Councilwoman Letitia James was interviewed to discuss how NY Sanitation Department cuts worsened the effect of the snow clogging up roads. There was no transition between the two segments talking about cuts. Representatives of the sanitation workers’ union were not interviewed – they said the department was critically understaffed by 400 workers, leading to a backlog of 1,300 emergency calls. Austerity can seem exciting and sexy if it’s abstract. CNN and Time journalists only have to see austerity in infographics – Manhattan was cleared for wealthy shoppers, tourists, and indeed journalists to get into work. The failure to connect the two segments was more questionable journalism than pro-austerity bias. But austerity and the ‘snowpocalypse’ were reduced to the most trivial possible content instead of talking about how cuts impact public services.

Coverage of the UK transport system paralysis was similarly trivialised. The BBC reported on how Helsinki airport deals with a far greater amount of snow and ice. Helsinki – though with less capacity and fewer flights – also has more trucks and staff to deal with the snow and ice, and a ‘snow desk’ to coordinate all necessary actors i.e. air traffic control, ground workers, and the airlines. While Helsinki airport’s public ownership is acknowledged as part of its strategy, private ownership of British airports is not considered as affecting the ‘snowpocalypse’ response despite BAA’s drastic de-icing equipment cuts. Privatisation and budget cuts generally mean profit-motivated public services that ‘streamline’ the number of workers. Why point out that Helsinki’s airport is publicly owned if not to compare it to London’s privately owned airports? The disruption was exacerbated by BAA’s inaction, having a monopoly on all three major London airports, in contrast to the coordinated strategy that public ownership of Helsinki airport allows for. Indeed the UK’s only publicly owned airport in Manchester has possibly faced the least disruption of major airports.

The failure of media on both sides of the Atlantic to acknowledge the role private ownership and budget cuts have played in the ‘snowpocalypse’ response, either because of cognitive dissonance or a need to appear ‘objective’, has only discredited and trivialised their coverage.

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