As the South Jersey shore struggles to recover from a devastating hit by Hurricane Sandy, officials are also grappling with another problem: correcting misinformation circulating through national news media, social media and word of mouth.
By Wednesday morning, dozens of reports by national broadcast, print and online media incorrectly stated that several shore town landmarks were gone. Social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook only perpetuated some of the rumors as people began posting about the stories. Among those items incorrectly said to have met their demise in various reports: The Ferris Wheel at Morey’s Piers in Wildwood, the Ventnor and Margate fishing piers, and The Cove Restaurant in Cape May.
Perhaps no landmark received more attention than the Atlantic City Boardwalk, which was put in its grave by several news stories with headlines such as one by the London Daily Telegraph online that read, “Devastated Atlantic City loses its Boardwalk, but not a single life.” The Huffington Post published a featured titled, “Atlantic City Hurricane Sandy: Remembering the city’s iconic Boardwalk,” which allowed readers to submit their own photos of the landmark saying that the seaside walkway had broken into pieces.
In reality, only a section of the Boardwalk that lies along the Inlet section of the resort was demolished in the hurricane. Plans have been in the works to tear down that section of the Boardwalk and rebuild it. City officials said the damage done by Sandy will only accelerate the process and cut costs for the project.
Left to crumble and deteriorate for three decades, the section of the Boardwalk that broke apart — and in many cases landed in sections in the yards of residents— lies along a primarily residential section of the city rather than the casino stretch tourists generally visit. The resort’s 12 casinos have seen little to no damage.
Meanwhile, several television stations have had reporters stationed in front of the obliterated section reporting that the Boardwalk had been totally wiped out. The images being shown on TV were so concerning that Tom Gilbert, commander of Atlantic City’s Tourism District, issued a statement on the condition of the Boardwalk Tuesday through the Atlantic City Alliance.
“The entire oceanfront Boardwalk in front of the Atlantic City casinos is undamaged with all dunes and lights intact. There is minimal to no visible damage to casinos and other businesses fronting the Boardwalk along the ocean,” Gilbert said. “The Atlantic City Boardwalk that was washed out by Hurricane Sandy is an area limited to the Boardwalk fronting the Absecon Inlet only. ... It is a small stretch of Boardwalk that is being shown in video footage and photos.”
Since posting Gilbert’s statement on the alliance’s Facebook page along with a photo of the intact Boardwalk, more than 1,500 people have “liked” the post and 500 have shared it with others. Jeff Guaracino, chief strategy officer for the alliance, said the statement was sent to major news outlets, many of which then corrected their stories.
The alliance, an organization created by state legislation earlier this year to market the city, will spend $20 million this year on an advertising campaign intended to revamp the city’s image as a desirable tourism destination. Centered around the “Do AC” marketing blitz, the organization has been monitoring the images of Atlantic City portrayed by media sources across the nation throughout the year.
Guaracino stressed that the organization is not seeking to minimize the damage seen in Atlantic City where flood waters were as deep as 8 feet and high winds brought down traffic lights and left significant debris scattered across the resort.
“It’s all about context. We all live here, so we know the difference between the Boardwalk where the casinos are and the Boardwalk where the Inlet is, but not everybody does,” Guaracino said. “We had national news reports showing cities under water, then showing stock footage of Atlantic City’s Boardwalk in the summer, and then cutting to the South Inlet’s Boardwalk destroyed. What we’re asking for is accurate information with reasonable context.”
Problems with misinformation started early. On Sunday, hours into the bulk of the evacuations, a photo began circulating on Twitter showing a section of the Boardwalk that had collapsed before the storm. Sources including The Weather Channel began using the photo as an example of early damage in the city.
“What we’re doing is going one-on-one and making sure that we correct each report as we find out about it,” Guaracino said. “ACA is tracking the national news, especially imagery of Atlantic City. We’ll watch this situation and make sure we can effectively go out there with an appropriate message that will be sensitive and also resonate. We’re heading into holiday shopping season, which is a critical time for the city.We want people to have the right message about what it’s like here.”
Other shore towns also saw their landmarks get traction in national news coverage, though not in the same way. One news program mistakenly aired a submitted photo of a structure simply known as“the shack” on Route 72 in Stafford Township and used it as an example of storm damage.
The 1920s structure, which features a flag coming out of the top, has been slipping into the marsh for years. Often painted by local artists, many say the shack has served as a reminder of the hunting shanties that used to dot Barnegat Bay.
But not everyone knows that. “This is somebody’s home barely standing ... so poetic to see how Old Glory is still waving and still intact on this house with a lot of people having the resolve in New Jersey that they will rebuild,” a newscaster said when a picture of the submitted photo flashed on a television screen.
Meanwhile, local authorities had a different story to tell about the shack. It has weathered its last storm and is no longer standing, police said.
Guaracino said its not unusual in a time of crisis to see misinformation arise. What’s important is that the information is corrected, he said.
“When reporters go into an area that they weren’t really familiar with beforehand, they won’t necessarily know what’s different when they don’t have immediate access to an official spokesman. They’ll just report what they see,” Guaracino said. “We understand that’s their job. It’s our job to go back out and make sure that the image that’s out there represents what’s truly happening.”
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