Reporters are lining beaches along the Florida panhandle this morning, making sure their mics pick up as much wind as possible as Tropical Storm Hermine approaches. It’s the top story on every morning news program – the journalistic convention for landfalling tropical systems (what do I mean? I wrote this lead last night, then confirmed with a quick flip through the channels over breakfast).
A few hundred miles west, Louisiana is still recovering. Some areas only recently arose from the flood waters that first submerged them three weeks ago. Personal possessions line streets in garbage heaps. Many schools are still closed.
The scope is staggering. Over 100,000 homes flooded in and around Baton Rouge and Lafayette; 13 people killed. When the waters crested, many small towns had become islands, separated from hospitals, gas stations, and grocery stores.
I know this largely because of family and friends on Facebook. From the outset, locals accused media of ignoring the story. We have to be careful about this – Southerners can be thin-skinned about perceived attacks from “the mainstream media,” including those greatly distorted or possibly fabricated.
But I had to admit, I wasn’t seeing much coverage either. And eventually, the media turned a critical eye on itself. The New York Times waited three days to move their staff writer in New Orleans to the scene of the devastation 75 miles away. Public Editor Liz Spayd lamented the paper’s aggregation of media reports instead of conducting original reporting, concluding that “A news organization like The Times – rich with resources and eager to proclaim its national prominence – surely can find a way to cover a storm that has ravaged such a wide stretch of the country’s Gulf Coast.”
Former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather took to Facebook to blame television news for choosing “the easy ratings of pundits playing the schadenfreude game in air conditioned studios” over sending reporters and resources to the flood zone.
I don’t have empirical data to analyze the amount and prominence of coverage compared to other natural disasters (though it’d be a fun study; anyone want to help?). For now, I’m relying on anecdotal evidence and observations of those in the industry. And that tells me the flooding in Louisiana was, and continues to be, drastically underreported.
To try to begin answering that question, I did my usual media scanning, and asked two meteorologists to help me fill in the gaps.
The storm hit at perhaps the worst moment on the media calendar in four years. Not only was it the summer vacation days of early August, “compound[ing] the usual challenges of getting available staff to the site of the news,” Spayd wrote, but there was also the Olympics and an ongoing presidential campaign starring the candidate our cameras can’t get enough of.
FEMA administrator Craig Fugate measured it in column inches.
“If you look at the national news, you’re probably on the third or fourth page,” he said.
While media devoted investigative resources and considerable airtime to Ryan Lochte’s frat boy exploits in Rio, Louisiana remained in the margins, a dichotomy Rather called “ridiculous.”
Baton Rouge is no media hub. And certainly rural areas of the surrounding parishes weren’t easy locales for parachuting in to shoot a stand-up. Did where the storm hit matter?
“What I’ve been worried about for years is that people who live in rural areas away from large cities are discriminated against in news coverage, in weather coverage, in a lot of things,” said James Spann, chief meteorologist for ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama, and a prominent weather personality on social media.
“If this had happened in New Orleans, it would have been all cable, all news, all the time,” he continued.
Spann speaks from experience. He remembers April 27, 2011, when a tornado outbreak killed 252 people in Alabama.
“That was on the news for a night or two and then it was gone,” Spann recalls. “We vanished because Alabama’s a rural state.”
It’s actually worse than that. Most of the national news attention was diverted from Alabama by something else… William and Kate’s royal wedding.
I noticed that wildfires in California – close enough to Los Angeles and San Francisco to easily reach – received about the same amount of coverage as the aftermath of the much more significant Louisiana flood.
But, before we accept the relative rurality of Baton Rouge as our explanation, what about the past few months? Remember Alton Sterling? Remember Black Lives Matter protests? Remember police officers being gunned down on a Sunday morning? That all happened in Baton Rouge, and it got wall-to-wall national coverage.
Clearly, media can overcome location when the story matters. So why was the flood ignored? It lacked a compelling media narrative, argued Salon’s Sean Illing. Police killings of African Americans and the subsequent protests, some violent themselves, fit into all sorts of larger frames about race and justice in America. So did Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago, where the botched federal response to mostly poor, Black neighborhoods triggered political frames that continued coverage for months.
In fact, politics might’ve been the only thing that got this flood back on our screens. President Obama’s decision not to pause his vacation and visit the area, combined with Donald Trump’s day-long tour and harsh criticism of his Democratic rivals finally connected the story to the campaign circus.
But overall, it was just the wrong kind of suffering. Somehow, a “Cajun Navy” rescuing people by boat just didn’t play. Skye Cooley, a communication professor at Mississippi State and a native of hard-hit Denham Springs, Louisiana, explained it this way for the Huffington Post:
In order to achieve the goal of coverage, those of us who care about the heartbreak in southeast Louisiana are forced to package it in those narrative frames of entertainment and historic loss in order to get anyone to care… and that to me is the larger tragedy. The tragedy is that strong, loving, cohesive communities, because of their strength and resilience, cannot be celebrated and assisted at the same time. That in order to be worthy of attention the very fabric of societal order has to have been sheered away; news media requires scenes that look like a zombie apocalypse, not scores of hometown heroes trying their best to rescue one another.
“Since the flooding isn’t the result of a hurricane, it feels like the scope of the hurt and the loss isn’t being particularly well reported.”
That was ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, in a commentary on his late night SportsCenter program. It was the first time I heard the sentiment of so many in Louisiana echoed on a national platform. (Sidebar: This is a huge part of Van Pelt’s appeal. He’s better than anyone I’ve seen – sports or otherwise – at connecting with and communicating the personality of the places he covers.)
Media didn’t cover the Louisiana flood because the storm didn’t have a name? Could it really be that simple?
“Absolutely,” said Spann.
He pointed to Hermine. When we spoke, it was called Invest 99-L, a title given to an area of potential tropical development. It wasn’t guaranteed to become a tropical cyclone or pose any threat to the Gulf Coast.
“If this thing wasn’t an invest, nobody would be talking about it,” Spann said at the time. “The title or name clearly gives it more attention.”
A meteorologist behind the scenes noticed the same phenomenon.
“I’ve seen more coverage about a potential hurricane that hasn’t even developed yet than what actually did occur in Louisiana,” said Jared Allen, senior forecaster at the National Weather Service office serving Austin and San Antonio, Texas.
Both Spann and Allen praised the NWS branch in Slidell, Louisiana, which serves the affected area, but noted that much of that good work went unnoticed by national media already moving into predicting the next named storm.
National media silence stood out because of just how breathless (and erroneous) weather coverage has become in recent years. Just look at this sample of irresponsible tropics coverage from the past week – the same time span in which we’re waiting for news about the Louisiana flood recovery. The lack of fancy graphics and talk of “millions in the path of a storm” may have upset people affected by the flood, but meteorologists say that’s not the answer.
“It’s overhyped,” said Allen. “It’s clickbait. Those big flashy headlines – millions of people or however many miles of coastline are threatened by a hurricane – might potentially be desensitizing folks to where you have all these people under the threat, but do they personalize the threat? Do they really think that severe weather is going to impact them in some way?”
Spann calls it consultant-driven “hyperbole.”
“What happens when you get a real disaster?” he said. “They don’t listen to you if you’re hyping up everything that comes along, and [the Louisiana flood] caught these guys flatfooted because there was no name, no title, no invest number.”
Does It Matter?
In an era of media distrust and audience fragmentation, does it even matter if traditional national media are pay attention to natural disasters? The answer is a resounding “yes” if you buy the agenda-setting function of prominent legacy media – that is, they can influence what smaller publications find important, all the way down to your Facebook feed. National coverage, particularly in the aftermath of tragedy, raises awareness and mobilizes support.
“The reality is that recovery purse strings are tied to America’s heart strings,” New Orleans Times-Picayune editor Mark Lorando told CNN. “The recovery that occurred in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, for example, would not have been possible if viewers and readers and consumers of news across the country had not been completely and emotionally drawn into what was happening here. If people are not aware of what’s happening in Louisiana and the scale of the devastation then donations to relief efforts don’t flow.”
“This was a humanitarian crisis,” Spann said. “By not telling it nationally, they probably lost some resources people would have been glad to donate.”
National coverage also has the potential to positively affect morale. We Southerners take pride in pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, but that doesn’t mean it feels good to be alone.
“I would imagine people want to feel valued in some way,” Allen said. “They want to know that what happened to them means something. What happened to them can be shared with other people.”
Whatever the combination of when it happened, where it happened, who it happened to, and what it was called, an historic natural disaster was portrayed as an aside. That matters, and we should think more about news judgments that made it seem acceptable.
Cover photo courtesy The Advocate.