WASHINGTON (Circa) — New data indicating far more people died on the island of Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria than previously reported has reignited debate over the media’s coverage of the storm and its responsibility to communicate the scale of a natural disaster that decimated a U.S. territory more than 1,000 miles southeast of Florida.
According to a study by Harvard University researchers published last Tuesday, an estimated 4,645 people may have died in the September 2017 hurricane and its aftermath, nearly 4,600 more than Puerto Rican officials had initially announced. At least one-third of those deaths were due to storm-related delays or interruptions in medical care.
Researchers acknowledged their count—based on a survey of 3,299 households and extrapolated to the island’s whole population— is imprecise and they calculated the actual figure could be anywhere from 793 to 8,498 deaths. “This was a quick study on a limited budget. With more time and resources, we would recommend a larger sample size in order to narrow the range of estimates,” they explained in an FAQ posted in response to media inquiries.
New data directly from the Puerto Rican government later in the week reinforced the reality that the storm was far more lethal than original figures suggested. On Friday, the Department of Health issued updated mortality figures, counting at least 1,400 more deaths between September and December 2017 than the same period in the previous year, suggesting those deaths can be attributed to the storm and the damage it caused.
If you did not hear about either of these figures on cable news, you are likely not alone.
The release of the Harvard study coincided with Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett and the subsequent outrage that led to the cancellation of her top-rated sitcom. Liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America calculated the Roseanne controversy received 16 times as much coverage as the Harvard study on air Tuesday.
“It was unfortunate that the timing put it up against the whole Roseanne Barr rumpus in terms of media coverage,” said John Carroll, a professor of journalism at Boston University and a former reporter. “But I think the coverage of Hurricane Maria and its effect on Puerto Rico has been woefully inadequate from the start.”
According to the Washington Post, none of the major Sunday morning talk shows mentioned Puerto Rico this weekend. The subject was crowded out by, among other things, the leak of a 20-page memo written by President Trump’s attorneys that raised many questions about his legal authority and the limits of executive power.
“In general, the news media doesn’t cover Latino issues, if at all, except in the case of immigration,” said Isabel Molina-Guzman, author of “Dangerous Curves: Latina Bodies in the U.S. Media” and a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.
Major media outlets have devoted coverage to the recovery effort in Puerto Rico and the challenges and problems that have arisen, particularly with regard to the loss of electricity and questionable contracts for repair work. However, journalism experts say the media attention has not been nearly as pervasive as the attention paid to disasters with similar death tolls in the continental U.S.
“Because of the effort it takes to get there, the other things that have been going on—it seems like every day there’s a brand new crisis to cover—I think hasn’t gotten the attention it should have period, let alone this particular revelation,” said Tim Brown, a former journalist and an associate professor at the University of Central Florida’s Nicholson School of Communication.
According to FiveThirtyEight, on the Sunday after Maria made landfall, Sunday morning shows devoted a total of less than one minute of coverage to Puerto Rico. The site’s analysis also showed that mentions of Hurricane Maria were far fewer than those of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma after they hit Texas and Florida earlier in 2017.
Experts agree that at least 1,400 Americans dying in Texas or Florida in communities that are still trying to get electricity back eight months after a storm would be receiving vastly more media attention.
“The fact that it’s not in Florida or Texas or New York or on the U.S. mainland, as a result, the English language news stations don’t see it,” Molina-Guzman said. “There’s no visible sense of the crisis. I think that makes it an easy story to overlook.”
While none of the major Sunday political talk shows addressed the issue last weekend, CNN’s Brian Stelter devoted a segment of “Reliable Sources” to the disproportionate coverage given to the Roseanne controversy compared to a study claiming 4,600 American citizens died in a natural disaster.
On the show, Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, whose brother currently lives in Puerto Rico, suggested race was a factor in the media’s disregard for the story.
“If these were 5,000 American citizens stateside and if they weren't brown and if they didn't speak Spanish, I think we would be talking more about this,” she said.
Earlier in the week, Stelter had interviewed CBS News correspondent David Begnaud, whose extensive coverage of the storm and its aftermath has been widely praised. He agreed that the media in general has not given Puerto Rico the attention it deserves.
“My bosses always say, ‘Give it to me in one sentence,'” Begnaud said on the “Reliable Sources” podcast. “Well, this is real simple. The death toll could be as high as 4,600. Period. And if that doesn’t generate enough A-block attention on the broadcast on every network, cable and broadcast, then I don’t know what folks are thinking.”
Experts see a number of reasons why attention has been lacking even as the damage and death toll estimates rise, including cultural and logistical factors.
“I think geography is a factor in this,” Carroll said. “I think a basic disconnectedness within the culture is part of this as well. Puerto Rico just doesn’t come up on the radar screen all that often. But more than that, I think it’s impossible to argue there’s not a racial component to this.”
Brown also sees a racial element, both in the attention paid to Puerto Rico last week and the story that received much more coverage.
“We are just still dealing with issues of race and culture that we just haven’t gotten our heads around and I think the Roseanne incident spoke to that,” he said.
Coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in 2005 was far from perfect—and it also raised questions about disparate treatment of racial minorities by the press—but Molina-Guzman said it offered a more attractive story for the media.
“New Orleans was on the U.S. mainland and I think the news organizations were able to find a sexy story, for lack of a better word, with what happened with the Superdome,” Molina-Guzman said.
She pointed to polls conducted around the time Maria hit that showed more than half of Americans were unaware Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens.
“I think it’s easy to ignore,” Molina-Guzman said. “It’s not on our front steps. It’s not far from our front steps, but it’s not right there.”
Puerto Rican officials said they always expected the final number to be higher than 64 deaths, and several independent estimates had placed the number around 1,000 or slightly below it. Puerto Rico’s Department of Health has asked researchers at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health to calculate a final figure, which is expected later this year.
If the Harvard study is accurate, the death toll from Maria could be on par with that of Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 terrorist attacks combined. If the government’s latest figures are correct, only a few hundred fewer people would have died because of Maria than Katrina. Either way, it is shaping up to be one of the deadliest natural disasters to hit U.S. soil on record.
Part of the challenge for media outlets is convincing audiences to care, given how far away that soil is.
“One way to look at this is the public gets the news coverage it deserves,” Carroll said, “and if the public is going to flock to the interesting over the informative, that’s what the news media are going to serve up. All media outlets are there to deliver an audience to marketers. That’s going to be their first priority.”
This is especially true of national cable news, and Carroll sees the deficiencies in coverage of this story as a symptom of greater systemic problems.
“The cable news networks in particular are obsessed with shiny objects and they will chase any story that can start a food fight because that’s basically what they do for a living,” he said.
Molina-Guzman noted that Spanish-language media has offered stronger reporting on Puerto Rico. Print reporters have also told the story more effectively than broadcast journalists.
“Because of the economics of news organizations and the way news organizations have had to restructure, there is not a structure in place to cover news that happens outside the U.S. mainland very well,” she said.
In central Florida, Brown said local coverage has been better because the story does impact residents, including Puerto Ricans who have fled the island and people who still have relatives there.
“I think people are interested in what’s happening in Puerto Rico,” he said. “Sometimes, you have to make sure they’re aware and trigger that interest.”
Researchers found last fall that the amount of media coverage of the Puerto Rico recovery closely tracked with President Donald Trump’s tweets on the subject. Coverage escalated five days after the storm hit when Trump began complaining about Puerto Rico’s debt, its workers not doing enough to help, and criticism he received from the mayor of San Juan.
According to FiveThirtyEight, even when media outlets did cover Puerto Rico during the first two weeks after the storm, an average of one-quarter of headlines mentioned Trump. In headlines of coverage of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Trump was mentioned only 5 to 10 percent of the time.
“When Trump enters the picture, it’s never to trigger a substantive discussion,” Carroll said. “It’s to trigger another food fight, so the uptick in coverage of the aftermath that Trump provided was basically coverage of the dustup between him and the mayor of San Juan, other critics.”
Trump has so far remained silent on reports that the death count is far higher than it was last fall when he told Puerto Rican officials they should be “very proud” that it was so low. He has, however, weighed in on the “Roseanne” cancellation, vulgar comments about his daughter by comedian Samantha Bee, and the New York Times’ incorrect estimate of the crowd size at his Nashville rally.
Given the coverage that followed last time Trump waded into the Puerto Rico recovery story, Carroll suggested another tweet now might not help the situation.
“That didn’t really further the public’s understanding of the extent of the damage. It was just another Trumpian sideshow,” he said.
Media outlets focusing on Trump may argue they are providing coverage that aligns with their audience’s interests, but what the public is interested in and what the public should be interested in are not always the same thing.
“We always have to be focusing on what’s important to the audience of whatever outlet we have, and that may be things people don’t want to hear,” Brown said.
Reports from Puerto Rico in recent weeks have indicated the island remains unprepared as a new hurricane season begins. With new data illustrating how destructive the last storm was, recovery efforts straggling behind in some areas, and the threat of more hurricanes to come, experts say the media attention the island receives may be more important now than ever.
“There’s some really key stories that are not being covered right now and the consequences are dire,” Molina-Guzman said. “Puerto Rico is going to get worse The lack of news media attention to it is a contributing factor to the lack of political attention being paid.”