Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have left hundreds of thousands people in Texas, Florida and other southern states without electricity. During last week, many have lost their lives and even more have been forced from their homes. In the United States, where ‘fake news’ is used frequently even by the president, mass media suddenly reclaimed its position as social glue and distributor of information. A lot of this is due to brave journalists who were continuously reporting live from the ravaged areas. CNN, ABC, NBC; all had teams in Texas and Florida, providing information to the affected public, as well as to the rest of the US. But what could the dangers of media logic be to live reporting of natural disasters or other forms of crisis?
Firstly, US mass media has to get some serious credit. The hurricanes that affected both Texas and Florida were insanely strong; Harvey even broke the total continental US rainfall in five days. In a situation like this, the mass media has the power to act as a great ‘equalizer’. As long as you are in possession of a telephone, television or radio, you’ll be reached by updates about the current situation in your area. This is important not only to private citizens, but also to rescue workers, the true heroes of every natural disaster. Media can work as social glue, providing unity through information. No matter your socioeconomic status, the same information will reach all segments of society.
Framing the hurricanes
However, as a Communication Science student, the immediate question posed after this conclusion is; what information gets distributed? What is reported on and what is left out? During a hurricane, the media has the somewhat involuntary duty and power to translate a difficult subject into layman’s terms, creating a narrative of the events that the population can understand. In doing so, the events naturally get simplified. Sensationalism, or creating easy-to-grasp messages that will sell newspapers, might in this case not even be a choice.
The same goes for the balance between reporting on technical capital and human/social capital. A lot of the reporting focuses on damaged infrastructure and how to rebuild it. This is of course incredibly important, yet it does not offer the same appeal to the public as stories concerning people. The combination of these angles, the technical and the human, together construct a narrative of the hurricane.
Climate change inclusion
This narrative, the incredibly difficult natural disaster put in comprehensible terms, however leaves out one important aspect, perhaps even more pressing today than ever. Research has shown that the losses in natural capital, such as important ecosystems, almost never reaches the media. This hurricane season is expected to be more active than ever – with 14 to 19 named hurricanes – and the US currently has a president who does not believe in climate change. In these circumstances, failing to report on why we’re experiencing these “monster storms” and what their natural damage could be, is deeply problematic.
Explaining how climate change is a contributing factor to the creation of hurricanes doesn’t have to be hard
The media narrative is not only important in the process of informing the public – we also internalise and process it when we’re making decisions. Am I going to leave my house or not? How can I best protect my home from the next storm? If climate change were to be included in the stories we tell about ourselves, direct action and engagement in the issue would come more naturally.
So, journalists should manage to include climate change in the easy-to-grasp narrative that we later return to in our comprehension of the events. Explaining how climate change is a contributing factor to the creation of hurricanes doesn’t have to be harder than this: “Scientists agree on the fact that warmer surface temperatures, that are largely caused by human emissions of greenhouse gasses, affect the creation of hurricanes.” Simple as that.
Including it in the media narrative is not an unthinkable thing; it is highly relevant to the issue, has some serious news value and – most importantly – offers an opportunity for a nice middle-finger wave to President Trump. Who, by the way, managed to centre his Texas-visit around his favourite narrative subject – himself.