Deadly Heat Wave or Killer Beach Day?

ClimateMedia Heat Waves
Deadly Heat Wave or Killer Beach Day?

“Northeast Braces for First Severe Heat Wave of the Year,” blares a headline today at the New York Times. The story warns of an extended hot spell, and includes important information like the potential health effects of extreme heat and the average number of people who die from heat in New York (350) each year.

The story is topped by a photo of people lying on a beach.

[Update: The NYT has swapped out the beach photo, a welcome adjustment for which we at Splinter humbly accept credit. The original can be found here, for reference.]

This is an infuriatingly constant theme for media coverage of the ever-increasing number of extreme heat waves around the world. “British heatwave brings hottest day of 2023 so far,” said Reuters last September, featuring a crowded Brighton Beach. A story about this past January’s record temperatures in Spain was headed by a muscular dude in a towel in front of a long and alluring beach scene; The Independent‘s story on the same heat wave, “Spain sees winter heatwave amid warning of extreme summer,” featured three beach photos. Brazil’s record-breaking spell earlier this year yielded a veritable smorgasbord of delightful Rio de Janeiro beach scenes.

This is far from the most egregious of media missteps out there, but in a world increasingly defined by such extremes, it seems like the photo chosen to accompany a story about a deadly threat should at least try to reflect that threat. The ocean frolicking photos are illustrating a fundamentally different story than the actual text.

There are ways to do this better, if writers and editors are willing to dig a little deeper than just a “heat wave” search at Getty or AP images. One could use any number of wildfire photos out there, as those disasters often follow closely on the heels of a heat wave. One could find images of people forced to work outside in extreme conditions — like the one above, of workers at a winery in South Africa, where temperatures this past January reached past 110 degrees F.

Hell, just find the ubiquitous images of cracked and dry ground that are available if the goal is to illustrate “area hot”.

As of the latest update from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2024 has about a 50 percent chance of becoming the hottest year in recorded history (and a statistically absurd 100 percent chance of ranking in the top five)— an impressive feat, given that 2023 just set that record “by far.” Much of the world still has months of potentially record-setting temperatures and heat waves ahead of it; the vast bulk of people can’t cool off at the beach when they arrive. Save the beach pics for beach stories!

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