It is the nature of the United States today that there are no slow news days. On any given day, we could get news about an ongoing investigation of the president of the United States or about a thawing in our relationship with a longtime geopolitical opponent or about dramatic new economic measures taken against allied countries. That’s this week, anyway.
We also got an update this week on one of the more important stories in recent history — the devastating hurricane that hit Puerto Rico last summer, the effects of which are still being felt. An independent study by medical researchers determined that the official death toll from the storm — 64 fatalities — was probably off by a factor of 70.
Understandably, that new finding attracted some media attention. Using analysis of closed captioning in news broadcasts compiled by the Internet Archive, we tallied the total number of mentions of the term “Puerto Rico” on cable news networks and broadcast stations over the past several days. (The Internet Archive is based in San Francisco, so the broadcast networks are all based in the Bay Area.)
MSNBC was the network that mentioned the island the most, peaking in the 5 p.m. hour Tuesday. (The bars below indicate the percentage of 15-second blocks in the hour in which the term was used.)
There was another news story this week, too. Roseanne Barr made a racist comment about former White House staffer Valerie Jarrett that quickly led to her show on ABC getting canceled.
It attracted a bit more media interest.
Note that, among the broadcast networks, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco mentioned Barr far more than other networks.
To be fair, the Barr story attracted far more interest from the general public, too, as indicated by search traffic at Google.
Networks also largely skipped over Kim Kardashian West’s visit to the Oval Office to press President Trump on prison policy. The celebrity attracted only a smattering of mentions in the news.
It’s also the case that the comparison above is skewed by the emphasis on cable news. Averaging the cable networks and comparing them to the broadcast networks, the difference is obvious.
But Barr’s dominance was remarkable. There are certainly a number of reasons for it, including that it was a new story centered on race and partisanship in a moment when both of those things are central to our national discussion, involving a celebrity with a hit television show. The Puerto Rico story was obviously more important, but the damage done to the island is not new, as such. The death toll offered a grim coda without being able to answer the central question of how many of those deaths could have been avoided by better preparation and a more effective federal response.
The network least likely to mention Puerto Rico? Trump-friendly Fox News. It was mentioned on three Fox News shows since Tuesday, according to the Internet Archive (excluding coverage of the White House press briefing). Dana Perino’s “The Daily Briefing” mentioned it Wednesday. It came up during “Shepard Smith Reporting” on Tuesday. And Martha MacCallum asked Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) about it in her prime-time show Wednesday night.
MacCallum asked whether Puerto Ricans moving to Florida after the storm would benefit the Democratic Party in the state.
“First off,” Scott said, “anything that happened with Puerto Rico should not be about politics.”
MacCallum then asked whether he believed the new death-toll number. Scott didn’t provide a direct answer.