CNN: Responsible Disaster Reporting?

If you've ever met me or read anything I've ever written on this blog you will know that I am not a fan of mainstream US media. I think overall they cause more harm than good, are failing this country as couriers of information, and are blatantly corrupt... evidenced by 90% of US media being owned by 6 corporations. 

As such, what follows may cause shock and awe. 

We need to talk about how the media covered Hurricane Patricia, particularly CNN. The media so often does a disservice during disasters that I really want to praise them when they have done an adequate job.

On Friday morning the storm rapidly developed into the strongest storm on record. The international media, especially the US and Mexico picked it up immediately. They were interviewing meteorologists about how the storm grew so fast, warning people to evacuate, interviewing public officials about what resources were going to be available for response and recovery, what type of impacts could be occur and what needs those impacts might generate, the relationship between Hurricane Patricia an climate change and el nino.

It was not just the size of the storm that was cause for concern but also the short time frame in which evacuation had to take place. With advancements in technology meteorologists are able to give communities several days notice to evacuate entire cities in advance of a hurricane, which is great because that's how long it takes to move hundreds of thousands/ millions of people out of harm's way. But in this case Patricia rapidly transformed from a small tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in 36 hours just hours before making landfall. It is a testament to Mexican officials that they were able to warn and evacuate so many, so quickly. 

Typically CNN has outrageous headlines that if seen by anyone unfamiliar with sensationalized media headlines would think the apocalypse was upon us. Yet, this time CNN’s headline remained along the lines of “Mexico braces for strongest storm ever recorded”. Usually I’m like, “Okay CNN, sit down. You’re being ridiculous.” but in this case Sure, that sounds scary but it should be scary. There was a massive hurricane barreling towards population centers!!

In fact CNN did what media is supposed to do… They reported on what was actually happening and provided life saving information to people who needed it. 

Someone on Youtube called "Angel of Apocalypse" (no comment...) compiled the mainstream video footage into one clip. It seems like they were trying to make some kind of point about how the media overreacts but really if you watch the 10 minutes, despite the scary music Angel of Apocalypse edited in, the actual reporting that everyone from CNN to Al Jazeera was doing was not sensationalized...it was informative and accurate. 

Let’s do a what-if scenario:

If Hurricane Patricia had come ashore and caused widespread catastrophic damage the media had pre-positioned their narrative of Hurricane Patricia in a prominent way that emphasized the possible needs of people following Hurricane Patricia. This would have greatly assisted the international non-governmental organization (i.e., aid groups) to raise the resources needed to respond and assist impacted communities throughout recovery.

Found on twitter. Notice the storm traveled between two population centers. 

Found on twitter. Notice the storm traveled between two population centers. 

When media does their job by raising awareness of a disaster they fight half the battle for nonprofits trying to raise money and help those in need. Why? Because the general public is already informed that a disaster has happened and that there are unmet needs. The average person can then seek out nonprofits that are assisting which removes the burden from nonprofits of needing to not only raise money and deploy assets but to ALSO be responsible for informing the general public about the situation. If the nonprofits do not have to be the ones breaking the news of mass unmet needs their limited resources can be used to actually go help people and not do the media’s job for them. So, from a nonprofit’s perspective it can be really helpful when the media covers a disaster in the way that CNN began to cover the potential that was Hurricane Patricia. (Media can also really make things difficult for nonprofits for a whole other host of reasons but that’s a story for a different day.) 

So that’s what could have happened if Hurricane Patricia had widespread, catastrophic damage but in reality Patricia was a very manageable situation. It hit an area of coast where relatively few people live and immediately hit a mountain range to dissipate just as quickly as it formed. It is just remarkable how little damage there was. CNN described “small impoverished fishing communities” that were most impacted. What I can tell from twitter, local newspapers (yes, I remember just enough high school Spanish), and government officials CNN is completely accurate. There are small communities that have been destroyed by this hurricane and that is horrible. But, from an emergency management perspective, especially the international emergency management community, the number of people that were impacted are so few and the amount of money that is required to help them rebuild is on such a small scale that the Mexican government and local aid organizations are well within their ability to act and provide leadership for this situation. CNN's report following landfall focused on reiterating government instructions to individuals sheltering in place to remain inside while threats of flooding and mudslides continued and reports of on damage. Because CNN did not sensationalize the damage, did not send Wolf Blitzer out in a rain jacket and, because they did not focus on a handful of destroyed homes while keeping all the untouched structures out of frame, they created support for the international nonprofit community's decision to not deploy resources to the area.

This is equally important because it removes public pressure for nonprofits to become involved in situations where their involvement is inappropriate and unnecessary at best, and harmful at worst. (I wrote a blog post for Foundation Beyond Belief about this issue yesterday if you want more information.)  

The way the media has covered this is was responsible. For once they weren’t out searching for people with sad stories and intentionally looking for damage because they were already deployed. They didn’t exaggerate the damage or the need. The sun came up, they saw there wasn’t a lot of damage and they said, “well, okay” and that was kind of it. They didn’t make it into something it wasn’t nor did they downplay what had happened (as they have been known to do in the past).

Hours later, when the remnants of Patricia started causing a real problem for Texas, who had already seen significant rainfalls earlier in the week, the covered it. And, again they did so responsibly. The addition rainfall from Patricia required voluntary evacuations and opening shelters. CNN shifted gears quickly to explain how the situation in Texas was from Hurricane Patricia and informed the public of what needed to be done.

The reason I am so surprised about all of this responsible disaster reporting is how mainstream media, specifically CNN has covered disasters in the past. The image of a CNN reporter exclaiming during Hurricane Isaac that the New Orleans levee system was compromised while CNN showed the sidewalk on the lakefront getting wet as evidence is seared into my memory. 

I do want to address one critique I saw pretty frequently on twitter about how US mainstream media was only covering tourists and not focusing on the local population (see: CNN's report on tourists). The thing is that it kind of makes sense for the US media to cover a situation involving so many US tourists. Those tourists have family members back home that need to know what is going on with them. 40% of people under evacuation orders were non-Mexican citizens (it's not clear how many were specifically US-citizens). That's a significant portion of individuals. Especially when tourists are considered within emergency management community to be a "vulnerable population", or a population of people that has unique needs that must be addressed. 

From Twitter

From Twitter

The hurricane was headed towards two resort towns. Tourists have needs related to lack of familiarity with the area which indicates they do not know the hazard landscape or what to do about those specific hazards, they lack a trusted social network, they are reliant on the tourist industry to provide resources and knowledge, language barriers, and cultural barriers. If you’re from Kansas and a hurricane is coming towards you it’s not ridiculous to think you wouldn’t know exactly what to do, especially when you don't know anyone in the country you're in to help you, don't speak the language, and have limited time to prepare. It’s not like tourists travel with a 3 day supply of food and water. 

I ultimately don’t think it is wrong for the media to to focus on tourists in this situation. If you’re an American tourist and you hear there is a hurricane coming at you you’re probably going to go on your phone and look at CNN because that’s the news that you’re familiar with and that you trust more so than the local news in a foreign country. It becomes a problem if tourists are the ONLY population the media addresses but I that too was not the case here. 

For these reasons I don’t necessarily think that CNN was wrong in how their coverage of tourists. Of course there’s always enough time in the 24 hour news cycle to cover more of the local population but I don’t think them not doing that it’s CNN forgetting the local community but rather them making a judgment called based on who their audience is and covering a vulnerable population (not to say that there are not vulnerable populations within the look community, obviously there are). 

 Mexico is one of the most visited countries in the world. Tourism is a major part of their economy -- as is true for Nepal and many of the countries that were impacted by the Indian Ocean Tsunami. While it may seem callous, and sometimes it is, countries have an incentive to demonstrate that they care for tourists when there is a risk of a disaster. If they don't it can have a rippling effect on tourism and in turn further hurt the economy when the may be facing billions of dollars in recovery. 

I’ve pointed this out before but the difference between the meteorology and disasterology community. This is so important and I’m going to keep talking about it until the distinction is a commonly known. The meteorology community had a heavy media presence leading up to the storm which is important. But, there is also a clear need for emergency management officials and disasterologists to be represented in the media. Disasterologists are the ones that can explain what the actual impacts might be, what the response and recovery would look like, and then of course in the case of an international event, how emergency management would coordinate a response and what the landscape of recovery would look like. This is something that disasterology and emergency management community MUST better at. And media, to relate back to the topic of this blog post, needs including emergency management officials in their narrative-telling leading up to events, during events, and especially into and throughout recovery.

Overall I give CNN a solid B. Good job.