The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The mainstream media didn’t care about Puerto Rico until it became a Trump story

Our analysis found Hurricanes Harvey and Irma got far more coverage than Maria did.

An employee of the New York company Con Edison works to repair cables damaged by Hurricane Maria in San Juan. (Thais Llorca/European Pressphoto Agency/EFE/REX/Shutterstock )

President Trump’s apathy to the plight of 3.4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico has been apparent since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September. He’s failed to focus consistently on recovery from the storm, and when he does discuss conditions in Puerto Rico in public remarks or on Twitter, he’s as likely to threaten or blame the island for its desperate situation as he is to offer help.

Perhaps Trump has been counting on American voters not caring much about the story, either. Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections; polls show that almost half of Americans don’t even know Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

Puerto Rico is being treated like a colony after Hurricane Maria

But even those in charge of American newsrooms who are aware that Maria and its aftermath is a domestic disaster did not cover the catastrophe as extensively they did Texas and Florida, hit just weeks before Puerto Rico was by massive hurricanes.

Most national media only started to pay attention to Puerto Rico after days of silence by Trump (as they jumped on the story, they seemed to forget the fact that they had also undercovered the island’s plight). When Trump started a fight with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, Puerto Rico finally started to get more coverage.

An examination of over 80 print and online media coverage across the United States shows that more than 1,100 news outlets carried stories about Harvey and Irma, the two other monster storms that struck U.S. soil this hurricane season, while only about 500 carried stories on Maria in a similar time frame. Overall, Hurricane Maria received only a third as many mentions in text as hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Data from the Media Cloud project at the MIT Media Lab shows that U.S. media outlets ran 6,591 stories online about Maria from Sept. 9 through Oct. 10 (one week before the formation of each hurricane through one week after the storm became inactive). By comparison, news outlets published 19,214 stories online about Harvey and 17,338 on Irma.

Coverage of Maria was surprisingly scarce in the first five days after the storm made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane. Despite extensive destruction, the five network talk shows on Sunday morning, Sept. 24, spent less than a minute in total covering Puerto Rico, according to an analysis by progressive media watchdog Media Matters.

Many news organizations sent reporters to the island who did outstanding work in very difficult circumstances. But the numbers show many newsroom bosses didn’t judge the story as worthy of top billing. The Sunday after Maria hit the island, the New York Times front page had no mention at all of Puerto Rico, which was set aside in favor of stories filed from Florida, Alabama and Trump’s NFL tiff.

An examination of President Trump's tweets on Oct. 12. threatening to withdraw recovery efforts from Puerto Rico. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

By contrast, Spanish-language outlets Telemundo and Univision News mobilized several teams (TV and digital) to report on the island. Dozens of journalists also contributed from the main newsroom in Miami on two special projects: a map with up-to-date information about damage in the 78 municipalities on the island, and a database that compiled information on members of the Puerto Rican diaspora trying to connect with family and friends on the island.

When the media did finally start paying attention, it was sparked by political controversy stemming from tweets by Trump criticizing San Juan’s “nasty” mayor, while almost completely ignoring the dire humanitarian situation in Puerto Rico. TV coverage has fallen dramatically since Trump visited the island on Oct. 3, even though the situation on the island is still dramatic. Some are comparing Puerto Rico’s crisis to the situation of another poor community populated by another racial minority: Flint, Mich., where residents have been struggling for years to obtain clean drinking water.

President Trump has no idea what’s happening in Puerto Rico

According to the MIT Media Lab’s analysis, the language used to discuss Maria was far more political with several mentions of “Congress,” “Senate,” “Democrats,” “Republicans,” “debt” or “tax.” Coverage of Harvey’s floods near Houston, on the other hand, focused more heavily on the storm’s toll on people, with high usage of terms like “victim” and “family.”

That disparity in coverage wasn’t necessarily because readers weren’t responding to news about Maria, either. Using a time span of one week before the storm’s landfall and one week after its end, the average number of shares for a story about Maria on Facebook was 4,530 — partly driven by stories on relief efforts by celebrities and civil society — compared with 3,553 for Harvey or 2,818 for Irma during the equivalent time span after those storms. On Google Trends, Irma garnered far more searches than Harvey but had comparatively far fewer stories in the news.

This lack of interest for some tragedies is a long-standing reflection of how the news business works. Cultural affinity shapes media coverage. That’s why most U.S. media barely covered the floods in South Asia that took over 1,200 lives and displaced another 41 million in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, around the same time that Harvey and its floods killed 77 people in Texas.

In the case of Puerto Rico, where the main language is Spanish, the cultural gap may be one of the reasons the island is persistently undercovered by mainland media. While Hispanic America has been growing in size — representing 17.8 percent of the population now — U.S. newsrooms are not reflecting that change. Hispanics comprise only 5.5 percent of newsroom employees, according to the most recent American Society of News Editors newsroom employment diversity survey. Minority journalists of any background comprise just 16.6 percent of the workforce in U.S. newsrooms.

Perhaps with a more adequate representation in the media, Puerto Rico — and Hispanic America in general — would be more visible to the rest of the country.

Read more:

Trump can’t stop complaining about Puerto Rico. And it shows in his policies.

My uncle survived Hurricane Maria. Despair over its devastation killed him.

Aid in Puerto Rico is stuck in San Juan