Everyone loves a good vortex

Everyone loves a good vortex

Now that I’m spending more time in the car and less time reading at night, NPR is saving my brain from deteriorating into mush. You can always count on it for fascinating stories, and the best part is they rarely — if ever — use the sensationalistic methods so loved by modern media. Sometimes they even warn you about it, like the story I heard this morning about how knowing that sites like AccuWeather only benefit from creating drama, so to take reports with a grain of salt.

The reports this week, for instance, about the “polar vortex” returning to “blast 200 million people with Arctic air,” are an obvious ploy for attention. They are using all of the language of fear-mongers to get people riled up about the news. First, reminding them of the bitter cold they suffered through last year as a result of this vortex — which, we should keep in mind is also a matter of rhetoric, as ABC reports. The polar vortex is real, they explain; it is an almost always present upper-level circulation that hangs out over the poles. But it’s not at the surface and is not related to EVERY push of cold air.

CBS talked about the “dreaded return of the polar vortex,” and even New York Magazine opened with:

Remember the heady days of early this week when you slipped on a light jacket and strutted into the sunshine, a gentle breeze rustling your hair, the autumn clear and temperate? Cradle that beautiful memory like a trusty talisman, clutch it fiercely to your chest, because it’s about to get fucking freezing.

If you think about it, it’s actually great storytelling: tapping into the reader’s personal memory to paint a picture of what’s to come. Everyone has their own set of references, their own image and sensation of what it was like last year. However, those “plunging temps” took place in January, in the middle of winter, when we were expecting it. It’s been an unseasonably warm early fall pretty much all over the U.S., and this is where the vortex story really gets good. Going from one extreme to another is an immediate attention-getter, and the weather news outlets are taking advantage of it:

“Freezing temperatures are possible in parts of the South and East that have not yet had such temperatures this season.”

Notice the clever insertion of AccuWeather branding:

“The combination of cold air, wind and other conditions, including snow in part of the Midwest and northern Plains, will send AccuWeather RealFeel® temperatures plunging into the single digits and teens.”

And, of course the inclusion of fear, with a terrifying “consequence” embedded in the story:

“Such cold will raise the risk of hypothermia and frostbite for those not properly dressed,” Sosnowski continued.

Finally, they note that some will be escaping the danger:

Only the Southwest, Hawaii, Alaska and South Florida will escape the grip of the upcoming arctic blast that the polar vortex can be blamed for.


All in all, a story told in such a dramatic fashion that most people will believe it — even when called out on it. So it’s effective. The question is, is this good reporting? And when you as a brand tell your stories, will you use these tactics?