Covering hurricanes is more than ratings

Covering hurricanes is more than ratings
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CNN’s Anderson Cooper stood in the wind and rain in Wilmington, North Carolina, reporting on Hurricane Florence this week.

He and other journalists were live on television being pounded by rain blowing sideways. 


It is a bit ironic that journalists are facing danger they are telling the public to avoid. During Hurricane Irma last year, NBC News correspondent Miguel Almaguer harnessed himself to a building in Florida City. 

This type of dramatic 24-7 coverage begs the question: Are the journalists there because it is newsworthy and millions of people may be impacted by the hurricane and the ensuing rainfall, or are they there for the ratings?

It’s actually a combination of both.

Journalists are being attacked these days and have been called an “enemy of the people” by President TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Korea conducts potential 6th missile test in a month Kemp leading Perdue in Georgia gubernatorial primary: poll US ranked 27th least corrupt country in the world MORE. The president sparked outrage Thursday when he said that nearly 3,000 Americans did not die as a result of the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico last year.

But the attention journalists give to hurricanes and other natural disaster coverage does alert the public in the immediate area and may lead members of the public in other states to lend a helping hand or make a donation.

Beyond the immediate coverage, journalists also are needed to report on the recovery in the months and even years after the disaster, such as Katrina.

Journalists were among those who continually raised questions about the initial death toll from Hurricane Maria that struck Puerto Rico last year.

The Center for Investigative Journalism(CPI) in Puerto Rico initially reported that in the 40 days after Hurricane Maria hit the island, at least 985 additional Americans died compared to the same period in 2016, as reported by Latino USA.

The latest number of nearly 3,000 was calculated by independent researchers from George Washington University's Milken Institute of School of Public Health in a contract with the government of Puerto Rico. The peer-reviewed research examined death certificates and they conducted interviews with doctors and funeral directors. Other studies have also documented a higher death rate than was initially reported.

The Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, said on CNN Thursday night that FEMA received 2,471 applications for funeral assistance from Puerto Rico. But they approved only 75 of them, she said.

What Trump fails to understand is that most of the island was without power in the months following the hurricane, so logging the deaths immediately afterward was impossible. Many of the deaths also were the result of an absence of electricity or lack of access to health care in the weeks and months after the hurricane.

The job of journalists is to hold government officials and society accountable. Seeking answers on the death toll in Puerto Rico is just one example. 

In Houston, journalists are reporting on the funding required to rebuild, what areas receive funding, as well as the increase in homelessness post-hurricane.

In Florida, journalists are reporting on how some parts of the Keys are still in recovery mode.

And in North Carolina, some journalists are also reporting on climate change and the rising sea levels. They are asking questions about a 2012 law that banned the use of recent climate science to plan for the consequences of rising sea levels.

It’s the job of journalists to report on the news in a live shot and to report on the long-term impact related to rebuilding, the environment, health and more.

People will always criticize the media. But imagine if there were no images and stories of these disasters and their aftermath. Journalists must continue to do their jobs.

As Dan Rather once said, “Ratings don't last. Good journalism does.”

Teresa Puente teaches journalism at California State University, Long Beach and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project.