How the US responds to natural disasters is increasingly dependent on what we see in the news. In times of disaster, fair and thorough coverage is necessary to support recovery. According to Gabriela Thorne of the Nation, “lack of media coverage makes it hard to get as many donations,” leaving those with less air-time to face a slower, more difficult recovery. This is especially true in territories like Puerto Rico. Months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans still struggle to re-establish normal daily living. Donations are still necessary for their recovery effort, yet establishment news coverage has moved on to other, more sensational topics.
In 2017, following both Hurricane Harvey and Irma, Puerto Rico was hit by a category 5 storm for the first time in 90 years. According to Reed Richardson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Hurricane Maria ranks second behind Hurricane Katrina in property damage and lives lost. Yet the donations that Puerto Rico received pale in comparison to that of Houston in the wake of Harvey. The American Red Cross collected “$350 million in donations and pledges to rebuild after Harvey, dwarfing the $9 million collected for Hurricane Maria,” Carter Sherman reported for Vice. Though it’s hard to say why this has happened, many conclude that “having some sort of personal or cultural connection to disaster victims often drives the levels of funding,” as Marco della Cava reported on CNBC. With no prominent coverage connecting audiences to those still struggling, Puerto Ricans are condemned to isolation. Several months after Maria, “more than a hundred thousand [Puerto Ricans] still lack clean drinking water, and almost one-third of the island has no reliable electric power,” Richardson reported for FAIR.
In today’s media landscape, social equity is dependent on representation. According to the Tyndall Report, Puerto Rico received 30% less coverage during Maria from broadcast news networks like ABC and CBS than Houston, TX did during the rise of Harvey. Donation and relief efforts for Puerto Rico were not mentioned when “Trump reminded the world that the Commonwealth still had a $115 billion debt that Wall Street will still need to collect,” as Julio Ricardo Varela of the Washington Post reported. What we are seeing—or not—in our media affects how a suffering party is treated by the rest of the world. In light of the minimal media coverage of the ongoing tragedy, Puerto Rico has been forced to partake in an extended moment of silence; one that diminishes the possibility of donations and weakens collective support.
Gabriela Thorne, “The 2017 Hurricanes Didn’t Just Hit Puerto Rico—They Hit the Caribbean,” The Nation, October 16, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/the-2017-hurricanes-didnt-just-hit-puerto-rico-they-hit-the-caribbean/.
Reed Richardson, “Disaster Coverage Still Has Blind Spot for Low-Income Victims,” FAIR, February 9, 2018, https://fair.org/home/media-ignoring-puerto-ricos-shock-doctrine-makeover/.
Carter Sherman, Carter, “Puerto Rico Has Received Millions Less in Donations Than the Mainland,” Vice News, October 8, 2017 https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/4347bp/compared-to-harvey-very-few-companies-have-given-toward-maria-relief.
Student Researchers: Rachel Keating, Molly McKinney, Justine O’Brien, and Ashleigh O’Halloran (University of Massachusetts, Aherst)
Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)