The Media Today

The media today: Covering an unfolding crisis in Puerto Rico

October 13, 2017

CNN’s Bill Weir called it “the worst humanitarian disaster I’ve covered since Katrina.” CBS’s David Begnaud took viewers inside a hospital where patients waited by candlelight. Vox estimated that the death toll in Puerto Rico is far higher than what’s been officially reported. Three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall on the US territory, plunging 3.4 million Americans into crisis, reporting on Puerto Rico’s dire straits depicts an island in desperate need of more help.

Yesterday, President Trump tweeted that FEMA, the US military, and first responders can’t stay in Puerto Rico “forever,” and that Congress must “decide how much to spend.” Those comments stand in stark relief to statements the president made about Florida and Texas in the wake of hurricanes in those states, and they come as 84 percent of the island is still without electricity, and a third of its residents are without access to running water.

The extent of the devastation wrought by Maria means any recovery will be long and painstakingly drawn out. Even as journalists work to keep the island’s plight in the news, stories surrounding California’s wildfires, Harvey Weinstein’s actions, and Trump’s health-care decision threaten to push Puerto Rico to the back burner. Though all three networks broadcast pieces from the island in their evening news shows last night, none of them led with Puerto Rico. The New York Times has reporters on the ground, but only two stories have made the front page this week.

The aftermath of a natural disaster, as suffering unfolds on a slower timeline than in the initial event, is always more difficult to keep at the front of the national conversation. The lack of focused attention given to Puerto Rico was apparent even in the early days after the storm. But as millions of Americans struggle to gain access to basic necessities and medical treatment, it’s vital that news organizations highlight reporting from the island and make sure the stories of those in peril aren’t lost in the flood of content.

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Below, more from a crisis on American soil.


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