Analysis: Exploring Media Coverage of Hurricane Maria

Over the past week, Puerto Rico has been devastated by Hurricane Maria. Inhabitants are suffering from profound shortages of food, fuel and power, and government aid has been slow in coming to their rescue.

Cell phone service and power have been almost eliminated throughout the island, and some areas are running out of supplies. 1.4 million Puerto Ricans (44 percent of the island’s population) are without clean drinking water, and the death toll has reached 16.

Despite this devastation happening to U.S. citizens on U.S. territory, U.S. media coverage of the issue has been lackluster, at best.

The hurricane made landfall on Wednesday, Sept. 20, but according to data compiled by MediaCloud (a project out of MIT and Harvard University providing data on “media ecosystems”), American media was preoccupied with other stories at the time.

Here’s a graph depicting the sentences per day published in MediaCloud’s entire U.S. media collection about “Puerto Rico,” the “NFL protest,” the “Russia-Facebook” story and “rocket man” (Donald Trump’s favored epithet for North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un) between Sept. 15-23*:

Leading up to the hurricane, Puerto Rico received little to no coverage (125 sentences/day compared to 3,500 for “rocket man”). But even after the hurricane made landfall, coverage was still overshadowed by the Russia-Facebook ad story and “rocket man.”

Likely due to this preoccupation, Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico received much less coverage than Hurricane Harvey’s damage in Houston. This, too, is proven by MediaCloud data:

In the days immediately after landfall in Houston (Aug. 25), there was significant media coverage, about 6,500 sentences/day two days after. In Puerto Rico, however, coverage was much more muted immediately after landfall— about 2,500 sentences/day two days after.

Due to a current lack of data, coverage in a more extensive context cannot be analyzed. Slightly more recent data can be found in Google Trends, which depicts relative popular attention (measured in Google searches) given to Houston and to Puerto Rico in the days following Hurricanes Harvey and Maria.

That data shows significantly more attention given to Houston three-four days after Harvey made landfall than was given to Puerto Rico in the same time span post-Maria.

As MediaFile has previously reported, newsroom decisions prioritizing coverage have a tangible effect. Donations follow coverage, especially when it comes to humanitarian crises. When media outlets de-emphasize a disaster, less money (and consequently less relief) flows towards that disaster.

In the case of Puerto Rico, the response from the U.S. federal government has been accused of being sluggish, due to reasons ranging from incompetence or racism on the part of the administration to an endemic lack of U.S. care for its Puerto Rican citizens.

Perhaps it is time to introduce another culprit to the question: neglectful, self-interested coverage decisions in U.S. newsrooms.

*The data ends at Sept. 23 due to a significant delay in collecting data for MediaCloud (the database cannot process all U.S. media data immediately after it becomes available). The article will be updated with more detailed graphs as more data becomes available.

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