Early Friday morning, Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina, two miles from the point at which meteorologists estimated it would arrive five days ago. In other words, we’ve known for a while that Florence was coming, and we’ve known for a while that the storm was going to be a big one.
If you’ve tuned in to cable news for half of a millisecond this week, that’s been obvious. On show after show, cable programs have dedicated increasing periods to coverage of Florence, culminating in the by-now-expected parade of drenched field reporters trying to be heard over wind gusts. The machine had kicked into gear.
It’s natural to wonder, then, whether the coverage is necessary or warranted. Yes, it’s important that people are informed about the storm, and, yes, it’s important to track the effects. But does covering every hurricane wall to wall reflect the importance of the storms after the fact? Does it tend to make us think that every storm is a historic one and, therefore, that none of them is?
The first question, we can answer. Using data on storm damage and the Internet Archive’s database of television news closed captioning, which goes back to 2009, we can visualize how much time networks spend talking about storms and how much damage in lives and dollars the storms wreak.
That comparison looks like this.
(Data for Florence is available through Thursday.)
A few things you’ll notice. Some storms, not anticipated to do much damage, both get little coverage and uphold expectations. Hermine, for example, in 2016. Storms that do a lot of damage, such as Harvey in 2017 and Sandy in 2012, tend to have longer tails of coverage.
But the obvious comparison worth noting on the chart above is that between Irma and Maria last year. Irma struck Florida in September, and Maria hit Puerto Rico 10 days later. (That latter storm has been in the news this week, thanks to President Trump’s false assertion that its official death toll was politically manipulated.) Irma got a ton of coverage, while Maria got very little — but the damage the latter caused was far worse.
Part of this is a function of timing. Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate all hit the United States in a relatively short time period last year. Harvey was a record-setter, dumping a ton of rain on one of the biggest cities in the country. Irma seemed as though it might do the same thing, slipping up the west coast of Florida and threatening the Tampa Bay region. Happily, its track shifted away from that course.
But the proximity of the two storms both in terms of geography and time certainly boosted interest in Irma. Happily, it ended up being far less damaging.
Maria followed Irma. Broadcasters were probably wary of pouring as much into a storm that might, like Irma, end up fizzling out. It was also not threatening the mainland of the United States, certainly reducing the networks' interest in the storm.
As a result, Maria ended up having the third-lowest average level of cable news attention during the period surrounding its landfall, despite the second-highest amount of damage, nearing $92 billion. Irma had the second-highest level of cable news saturation and the fourth-highest level of damage. Hurricane Irene in 2011 was most out of whack, with the peak in cable news attention among landfalling storms since 2009 but a relatively small amount of damage.
Maria and Irene are the poles. But Harvey and Sandy are closer to what might be expected: serious storms that received relatively robust news coverage. That coverage continued for some time afterward.
That highlights another point of criticism, though. Consider the after-the-fact coverage of Harvey and Maria.
Coverage of Harvey continued at a high level for days. Coverage of Maria, though, was almost nonexistent, even for weeks after.
We can tell when storms are coming, and we can tell generally where they’ll go. The gray area around those predictions means that news organizations are left trying to decide how much attention a storm warrants as it approaches. They seem to do a better job than we might assume.
Coverage of the aftermath of the storms could certainly use some work.