The Media Today

Puerto Rico’s devastation takes a backseat to Roseanne coverage

May 31, 2018

For those who argue that the media has misplaced priorities when it comes to coverage choices, this week has provided a case study to support their position. While media outlets from cable news to digital publishers obsessed over the cancellation of ABC’s Roseanne, a report on the staggering death toll in Puerto Rico has, in comparison, been met with relative silence.

Researchers from Harvard University estimate that at least 4,645 deaths can be linked to Hurricane Maria and its immediate aftermath, more than 70 times the official count of 64. The Washington Post’s Arelis R. Hernández and Laurie McGinley write that “the island’s slow recovery has been marked by a persistent lack of water, a faltering power grid and a lack of essential services—all imperiling the lives of many residents, especially the infirm and those in remote areas hardest hit in September.”

The Harvard study has a wide margin of error, but even at the low end of its range, the death count from Maria would place the disaster on par with the devastation wrought by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The news received coverage from numerous outlets, but it was swamped by the firestorm surrounding the cancellation of a sitcom.

“I’ve gotten three times as many breaking news emails today about ‘Roseanne’ getting cancelled than I have about the death toll in Puerto Rico being 70 times higher than we thought,” Wisconsin Public Radio host Brady Carlson tweeted Tuesday. The watchdog group Media Matters for America calculated that cable news networks covered Roseanne Barr’s tweet and her show’s cancellation 16 times as much as the deaths of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.

The frenzied coverage of Barr’s comments and the ease with which media outlets labeled them “racist,” while reports on Puerto Rico’s catastrophe receive far less attention, reflect a systemic problem. We’re comfortable calling individual actions or comments racist, but struggle to paint systemic issues—the criminal justice system or the lack of attention to Puerto Rico, for example—with the same clear strokes.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

RELATED: After Hurricane Maria, AM radio makes a comeback in Puerto Rico

The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan attributes that struggle to “a media system that remains too white, too male and too coastal.” Contrasting the firestorm over Barr’s comments with the relative silence about the death toll in Puerto Rico, Sullivan writes that the two stories “aren’t unrelated.”

CBS News’s David Begnaud, who has consistently provided admirable coverage of Maria’s aftermath, returned to Puerto Rico on Wednesday, speaking with families of those that have died. Standing in front of a neighborhood still dotted with blue-tarped roofs and lamenting the slow pace of recovery, Begnaud added “meanwhile, hurricane season is about to begin.”

Below, more on Maria’s aftermath and the media’s response.

  • The role of race in the recovery: The Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk II notes that “many of the lasting effects of flooding, contamination, and ill health in Puerto Rico compounded along lines of race and class, just as they did after Katrina hit New Orleans.”
  • Calculating the human cost: Reporting on the Harvard study The New York Times’s Sheri Fink writes that “the true number of deaths beyond what was expected could range from about 800 to more than 8,000 people.” Because the researchers could not count people who lived alone and died as a result of the storm, they estimate that the death toll could be higher than 5,000.
  • Political indifference: In March, a Politico investigation found that “the Trump administration—and the president himself—responded far more aggressively to Texas than to Puerto Rico.”
  • A persistent problem: Weeks after Maria made landfall, FiveThirtyEight’s Dhrumil Mehta crunched the numbers and wrote that the media really has neglected Puerto Rico. “Compared to the other natural disasters of the past few weeks, Hurricane Maria has been relatively ignored,” Mehta wrote last September.


Other notable stories

  • “I believe this year will stand out in the now century-long history of the Prizes as among the most important,” Columbia University President Lee Bollinger told the Pulitzer winners gathered yesterday to accept their awards. “We are living in an era that demands of us a new understanding of and confrontation with the abuses of power,” Bollinger continued. “On the political front, I think it is clear that the nation is facing the most serious internal attacks on the fundamental values and institutional structures that define a democracy since the Pulitzers were introduced a century ago.”
  • On Tuesday, news of the murder of Russian dissident journalist Arkady Babchenko in Ukraine reverberated around the journalism world. Yesterday, in a stunning plot twist, Babchenko appeared very much alive at a press conference in Kiev, explaining that he had faked his own death as part of a sting operation to catch those who were actually out to get him. The BBC reports that there were “gasps and applause at the press conference in Kiev as Babchenko entered the room.”
  • For CJR, Steven Greenhouse examines the history of newsroom labor movements, and argues that the reasons for unionization haven’t changed much in the last 80 years. Meanwhile, Anna Heyward reports on the new wave of unionization at digital outlets.
  • After ignoring news of Roseanne’s cancellation at his rally on Tuesday evening, President Trump jumped into the story with a Wednesday tweet accusing Disney chief Bob Iger of practicing double standards. CNN’s Brian Stelter writes that Trump’s comment was notable for what it left out, noting that the president “didn’t say anything critical of Roseanne Barr’s racist and conspiratorial tweets.”
  • MSNBC host Joy Reid, already under scrutiny for anti-gay posts on her now-defunct blog, is facing new problems after BuzzFeed’s Joseph Bernstein and Charlie Warzel reported that Reid also posted a promotion of the infamous 9/11 documentary Loose Change. Reid has claimed she was hacked, but has provided no evidence to support that assertion.
  • For The Ringer, Ben Detrick has an incredible story that “could exist only in the fog of 2018, when the line between personal and public, private and anonymous, authentic and unreal is vanishingly thin.” Involving a powerful basketball executive, anonymous Twitter accounts, and some serious internet sleuthing, it’s too complicated to sum up in one bullet point, but it’s absolutely worth a read. The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur has an update on the story, writing that the NBA is “the strangest, funniest, craziest sports league in the world, where a scandal can be otherworldly, and so strangely, sadly human.”

ICYMI: So you wanna be a journalist?

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.