The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cable news networks spend far more time talking about hurricanes than wildfires

Firefighters battle the Camp Fire in Northern California. (U.S. Forest Service/National Wildfire Coordinating Group/EPA-EFE/REX) (Usfs/Nwcg Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

One of the imbalances that exists in any news coverage is that an anticipated event can spawn a massive amount of speculation while coverage of the event itself is more constrained. Consider the 2018 midterm elections: Newspapers, websites and cable news networks spent months assessing what was likely to happen, who would control which chambers, how President Trump would respond — and then the events happened and coverage moved to a single track, looking at what happened.

That alone can help explain some of the unevenness in how natural disasters are covered.

In the wake of the Camp Fire in Northern California, which has killed at least 76 people, with hundreds missing, there has been a common criticism on social media that the wildfire — and wildfires in general — receive much less coverage than hurricanes on cable news. Analysis of closed-captioning data collected by the Internet Archive makes clear that this perception is accurate.

Looking at four hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017 and Michael this year — we pulled data on the density of hurricane coverage on every day following the formation of the storms. Of the four, Maria got the least coverage in the days after formation, with Irma receiving the highest density of coverage on cable news networks.

We can compare that with coverage of three major wildfire events in the past year: the Camp Fire, fires in Southern California last winter and the Mendocino Complex Fire from this summer, the largest on record in the state.

The scale on the vertical axis of all of the graphs in this article is the same.

We used “wildfire” instead of “fire” in these searches, because the latter term is more common for non-wildfire-related uses. Using “fire” increases the responses, but they are still dwarfed by responses for “hurricane."

The Camp Fire is the deadliest fire in the history of California. On Fox News and MSNBC, the peak density of coverage through Sunday has never matched the lowest density of coverage on those networks in the first two weeks after the formation of Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Why that imbalance? A few likely reasons.

Forecasting. Notice that the peaks in hurricane coverage happened in concert with or before the storms making landfall in the United States. As with the election, cable networks could spend days before the landfall anticipating where the storm would go and what its effects could be. Regardless of whether the storms caused massive damage, there was plenty of time to speculate that they might. Lots of visuals of hurricanes spinning toward land, past damage and so on.

The Camp Fire — unfortunately for its victims — offered no such period of forewarning. The Los Angeles Times’s horrifying description of the fire’s emergence makes clear that the period between the fire’s ignition and its overwhelming the town of Paradise was a matter of hours. There was no warning even in the areas affected by the fire on the same day, much less for days in advance.

Scale. The Mendocino Complex Fire was the largest on record in California, burning more than 717 square miles. The hardest-hit areas of Hurricane Harvey, by contrast, spanned 23,000 square miles. What’s more, the days leading up to Harvey’s landfall (or any hurricane’s landfall) meant a much larger range of possibly affected areas. Irma’s landfall was projected at one point to make landfall near Tampa, a major metropolitan area.

By other metrics, hurricanes are much more dangerous, as well. Irma was responsible for more than 90 deaths in the United States. The Mendocino Complex Fire resulted in one. More than 12,000 buildings have been destroyed by the Camp Fire to date; Harvey caused an estimated $125 billion in damage.

Television reporters stood in the middle of Hurricane Florence to keep viewers informed about wind, rain and flying debris. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Bias. Which isn’t to say that the coverage reflects what it should. Part of the reason Irma received as much coverage as it did was that it closely followed Hurricane Harvey, and the possibility that two sections of the continental United States might see massive damage from hurricanes. That hype cycle bolstered hurricane coverage in the run-up to Irma. But when Maria emerged shortly after, far from the mainland, coverage sagged.

Maria, of course, was far deadlier than either Harvey or Irma.

Even within California, some evidence of imbalanced coverage exists. Here are mentions by network of Paradise, the small city in Northern California that was gutted by the Camp Fire, vs. coverage of Malibu, a more-populated and better-known area currently threatened by the Woolsey Fire.

Paradise received more coverage, but Malibu’s coverage was disproportionate to the scale of damage. That many celebrities live in Malibu probably played a role in that divergence.

What’s missing in this admittedly grim analysis is another important factor: the effects of the fire in Northern California on cities there. San Francisco and San Jose — the 10th-largest city in the country — have seen more than a week of dangerously unhealthy air quality, thanks to smoke from the Camp Fire.

According to GDELT analysis of cable news closed-captioning, there have been 35 mentions of San Francisco in the context of smoke on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News over the past 10 days.

There have been 14 mentions of San Francisco in the context of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the three networks over the same period.