On May 29, 2018, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article that estimated that 4,645 Puerto Ricans died because of Hurricane Maria. Although the study’s authors do not claim that 4,645 died because of the hurricane, the media, by in large, reported it this way. As I noted in a previous post, because of their survey’s margin of error, the authors estimate that deaths connected to Hurricane Maria could be as low as 793 and as high as 8,498. Thus, the 4,645 is the median between these two estimates.
The study, which was funded by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, reopened a long-standing debate on the Government of Puerto Rico’s inability to account for all the deaths associated with Hurricane Maria. The fact that the study’s estimates were higher than the official death count or other estimates shocked many Puerto Ricans.
In social media, people have adopted different avatars that make reference to the 4,645 estimated deaths. Many Puerto Ricans have used Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to share their stories of loved ones who died as a consequence of Hurricane Maria. In what NPR’s Adrian Florido described as an “impromptu memorial” , thousands of pairs of shoes were placed in front of Puerto Rico’s capitol building, symbolizing the number of people who have not been accounted in the government’s official tally, which today stands at 64. During the weekend, many Puerto Ricans visited the building to honor those who lost their lives and to protest the Rosselló administration’s lack of transparency and its mishandling of this controversy.
Even though the Harvard-funded study’s effects on the island’s politics was covered by many U.S. news organizations, some critics find that the issue did not receive the coverage it deserved. For instance, James Downie writing in the Washington Post’s Post Partisan blog noted that the story was not discussed in the Sunday news shows. Similarly, Kate Sullivan and Lis Power of Media Matters showed that the Harvard-funded study received less airtime than Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet, which led ABC to cancel her show.
While the critics are correct, it is important to highlight that many news networks did mobilize their resources to cover the fallout of the Harvard-study in the island. For example, CBS News sent David Begnaud to Puerto Rico, while CNN sent John Sutter and Leyla Santiago and NBC deployed Gabe Gutierrez. These journalists have covered the humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricane Maria, visiting the island several times in the last eight months.
So how much media coverage did Puerto Rico earn in the past two weeks? Which U.S. news network devoted the most airtime to any issue connected to Puerto Rico?
To answer these questions, I used the GDELT Project’s TV Explorer application (version 2.0) to measure how much airtime the major U.S. TV news networks devoted to issues connected to Puerto Rico. The application aggregates data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive. My analysis covers the period between May 21, 2018 and June 3, 2018. I decided to explore a period of two weeks to get a rough idea of how much coverage Puerto Rico issues earn in U.S. TV news networks.
The image included with this post is a wordcloud of the top words associated with this coverage. It clearly shows that these words are connected to the fallout of the Harvard-funded study.
The next bar graph compares the overall coverage of news connected to Puerto Rico across the main U.S. news networks.
On average, Univision devoted the most airtime to Puerto Rico in this time period, followed by CNN, MSNC and PBS. Not surprisingly, the story did not earn too much interest from FoxNews.
The next charts help us visualize each news network’s coverage of stories connected to Puerto Rico for the two weeks period. For ease of reading, I have divided these networks into three subgroups. The first subgroup includes CNN, MSNBC and FoxNews, which are the main U.S. cable news networks. The second one looks at the affiliated TV stations news networks that broadcast in English, which include: ABC News, CBS News and NBC News. I also added PBS to this subgroup. The final subgroup represent the country’s main Spanish news networks, Univision and Telemundo.
This line graph clearly shows the impact the Harvard-funded study had on the coverage of news stories connected to Puerto Rico. And while MSNBC devoted more airtime to the story early on, CNN’s coverage increased over time. This may be connected to Anderson Cooper’s interview of Governor Ricardo Rosselló regarding this controversy – an issue a I covered in my last post.
The next line graph shows that PBS devoted the most airtime to the Harvard-funded study among the non-cable news networks. However, its coverage, like MSNBC’s decreased quickly. CBS News, on the other hand, had the most consistent coverage in the days following the publication of the Harvard-funded study.
Surprisingly, ABC’s news coverage was pretty low. Could this be connected to the fallout of Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet or is this part of a trend that could be observed over a longer period of time? This is an interesting question, but for now I will give ABC the benefit of the doubt. After all, Barr’s sitcom aired in ABC.
In terms of the Spanish news networks, it is not clear why Univision dedicated more airtime to the Harvard-funded study than Telemundo. But it is interesting to see that Telemundo’s coverage spiked during the weekend, as Univision’s coverage declined. Could it be that Telemundo was interested in the “impromptu memorial” created by Puerto Ricans in front of the island’s capitol building.
In the next days, I will look at how the U.S. print and online media covered news connected to Puerto Rico during this time period. This will help us make sense how much coverage the Harvard-funded study received in the U.S. mainland. For now, it is interesting to see how U.S. TV news networks covered the fallout of the Harvard-funded study on Puerto Rico’s excess mortality following Hurricane Maria.