The situation seems dire. Some 3.4 million American citizens are without power. Food and water are running low. Much of the local infrastructure is destroyed or damaged; a major dam is on the brink of failure. The governor is pleading for federal help.
And yet the story — the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico — has received relatively limited on-the-ground coverage and scant discussion on national news programs.
On Monday, the cable news networks, which both reflect and set the national news agenda, found many other things to discuss: the NFL national anthem controversy; Jared Kushner’s use of a private email account for official work; the sentencing of former congressman Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.); nuclear tensions with North Korea; the Senate debate over health-care legislation. CNN staged a prime-time debate over the latter topic on Monday.
The five top-rated broadcast and cable networks’ Sunday news-discussion programs devoted less than one minute to Puerto Rico, according to a count by Media Matters, the liberal watchdog group. Even that may have overstated the noncoverage: Three of the five shows — ABC’s “This Week,” CBS’s “Face the Nation,” and Fox Broadcasting Co.’s “Fox News Sunday” — didn’t mention Puerto Rico at all.
Live reports from the battered island did pop up, albeit sporadically. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, warned of “a humanitarian crisis” in an interview on CNN’s morning program “New Day.” All three cable news networks offered occasional live reports. Among others, NBC News dispatched lead anchorman Lester Holt to San Juan; Fox News sent correspondent at large Geraldo Rivera.
But the contrast to coverage of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida was striking. Those two storms, which caused widespread flooding and wind damage, received round-the-clock attention from the networks and intense coverage elsewhere. Perhaps stimulated by all the attention, both mainland disasters rated presidential visits and a vigorous relief effort.
So why doesn’t Puerto Rico rate the same?
Some of it may be “hurricane fatigue,” the sensory overload of yet another natural disaster so close to the preceding disasters, said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a Columbia Journalism School project that focuses on conflict and disaster reporting.
“News organizations have a kind of stock set of responses” for broad natural disasters and “they’ve used up their vocabulary for the first two storms,” he said. “It’s difficult to come up with fresh, non-cliched way of doing this again.”
But no story is an island, and network executives suggest there are many stories competing for the public’s attention. Notably, President Trump created a new controversy beginning on Friday by suggesting that professional athletes should be fired if they don’t stand for the anthem. He doubled, tripled and quadrupled down on his comments on Twitter (as of Monday afternoon, he still hadn’t tweeted about Puerto Rico, in contrast to his early and supportive comments after Harvey and Irma).
What’s more, covering the story in Puerto Rico has been logistically difficult. Some news organizations had reporters or freelancers living on the island, and a few sent reporters in anticipation of the storm. But dispatching additional people and equipment from the mainland has been no easy task, given uncertain commercial flights.
A group of Associated Press journalists, for example, flew to Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital, on Friday in hopes of hopscotching to San Juan, said David Scott, the newswire’s deputy managing editor for operations. But the ferry they’d hoped to take to Puerto Rico was canceled, and a charter flight was grounded when its pilot couldn’t secure a landing permit. The journalists flew back to Miami; they hope to fly to San Juan on Tuesday, Scott said.
Once on the ground, getting the story back hasn’t been easy, either. With power unavailable, the AP has used satellite phones to transmit text, photos and video, said Scott. The Washington Post’s team in San Juan has relied on a generator at a local hotel, said Josh White, the newspaper’s America desk editor. Limited-to-nonexistent cell service means reporters are often out of contact for hours, and sometimes for several days in remote locations, he said. Most of The Post’s stories have been sent via email from the hotel. A few have been transmitted the old-school way: by dictation over the phone.
During Harvey and Irma, the ways and means were far easier. Flights to nearby cities were uninterrupted, and many reporters drove into affected areas. Cell service in most areas was unaffected.
But the biggest difference between news coverage of the disasters on the mainland and the one in Puerto Rico may be the second-class status of the island, Shapiro said.
“Puerto Rico has been a very poor stepchild of U.S. news coverage for a very long time,” he said. “It has been subjected to a slow-motion Category 5 bankruptcy and crisis for several years and that has never merited serious coverage by most important news organizations. . . . These are not some kind of unconscious editorial decisions. This is out of sight, out of mind.”
He added: “The reality is Puerto Rico has been historically neglected by the American media — its politics, its environment, its economic issues. Why not hurricanes?”