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Deadly heatwave or murderous beach day?

“The Northeast is preparing for the first severe heatwave of the year,” reads a headline in today’s New York TimesThe article warns of a prolonged heat wave and contains important information such as the potential health effects of extreme heat and the average number of people who die from heat in New York each year (350).

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

This is an annoyingly recurring theme in media coverage of the increasingly frequent extreme heatwaves around the world. “British heatwave brings hottest day of 2023 so far,” said Reuters last September, with a crowded beach in Brighton. A story about the record temperatures last January in Spain was led by a muscular guy in a towel before a long and seductive beach scene; The IndependentThe article about the same heatwave, “Spain experiences winter heat and warning of extreme summer”, appeared three Beach photos. Brazil's record-breaking holiday season earlier this year produced a veritable smorgasbord of delightful beach scenes from Rio de Janeiro.

This is far from the worst media misstep, but in a world increasingly defined by such extremes, the photo chosen to accompany a story about a deadly threat should at least try to reflect that threat. The photos of the ocean frolicking illustrate 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 searching for “heatwave” on Getty or AP Images. One could use any number of photos of wildfires, as these disasters often follow shortly after a heatwave. One could find images of people forced to work outdoors in extreme conditions — like the one shown above of workers at a winery in South Africa, where temperatures reached over 40 degrees Celsius last January.

Just look for the ubiquitous images of cracked and dry ground that are available when the goal is to illustrate “hot areas.”

According to the latest update from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2024 has about a 50 percent chance of being the hottest year on record (and a statistically absurd 100 percent chance of coming in the top five)—an impressive feat considering 2023 just set that record “by a long shot.” ​​Months of potentially record-breaking temperatures and heat waves still lie ahead in much of the world; the vast majority of people won’t be able to cool off on the beach once they arrive. Save the beach photos for beach stories!