National TV news coverage of Hurricane Fiona’s path through Puerto Rico fell into a predictable pattern: The story was covered largely as an isolated meteorological phenomenon, with the usual parade of disaster imagery. The storm caused devastating flooding in Puerto Rico, which resulted in millions of people losing power and 760,000 left without access to potable water. But the storm’s impacts, and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, were exacerbated by human failure exemplified by an electrical grid system that again foundered when it was needed most.
Corporate news networks aired more than 240 segments that mentioned Puerto Rico’s power outages. Yet not only did they largely fail to mention that global warming is driving wetter storms like Hurricane Fiona, per a recent Media Matters study, but they also failed to connect the island’s infrastructure failures during Fiona to the policies and practices that exacerbate climate impacts and hinder recovery for poor communities and communities of color. These systemic inequalities, which have plagued Puerto Rico since Spain ceded the island to the United States in 1898, never became part of the larger story as the storm made landfall and during its aftermath.
To understand if and how the story of Hurricane Fiona and Puerto Rico was told through a climate justice lens, Media Matters analyzed coverage on corporate broadcast morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, and all original programming on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News from September 17 (when the power outages were first reported) through September 23.
Media Matters found the coverage about the power outages and the grid largely lacked vital context about how and why Puerto Rico’s grid was so fragile. The coverage also mostly failed to hold those responsible for the grid’s current state of disrepair accountable, even as millions of people, almost half of whom are are living below the poverty line, suffer in the aftermath of another devastating storm exacerbated by human neglect, incompetence, and greed.
Puerto Rico is caught in a vicious triangle of climate change, political incompetence, and colonial neglect. But it’s not too late for national TV news to improve on its extreme weather coverage in Puerto Rico and, now, Florida as Hurricane Ian threatens catastrophic damage.
National TV news missed another climate justice story
Extreme weather events like hurricanes disproportionately harm poor and under-resourced places like Puerto Rico. Although national TV news shows often air voluminous coverage of these climate-fueled disasters, they rarely contextualize why people on the frontlines of the climate crisis have far fewer resources to adapt, evacuate, and rebuild before and after devastating disasters. Reporting on the massive, island-wide power outage, caused by the failure of a long-neglected electrical grid, was an opportunity to frame this story through a climate-justice lens.
But, with few exceptions, broadcast and cable news networks failed to apply this lens. As a result, the storm’s impacts were reported, but the underlying injustices were not.
An article published by The American Prospect makes a compelling case for why coverage should have focused more on the unequal status accorded to Puerto Rico by the United States and how this negatively affected the island’s ability to provide basic infrastructure for its residents. For example, Puerto Rico’s colonial status allows the United States government to employ heavy-handed tactics to influence and control the island’s financial dealings. According to the piece:
There are many proximate factors behind Puerto Rico’s continued vulnerability to hurricanes and economic dysfunction. But the root problem is political inequality. It is an American colony: controlled by the United States government, but without any political representation for the people living there. Until this inequality is rectified, it’s a safe bet that Puerto Rico will never fully recover.
The most immediate infrastructure issue on Puerto Rico is the electrical grid. Even before 2017, the system was aging and battered, reliant on polluting heavy oil generators whose fuel had to be imported at great expense. Maria virtually shredded the whole thing to ribbons. This damage, and chronic corruption at the state-owned power utility, prompted the island’s government and the oversight board appointed by Congress (more on this later) to privatize the grid in 2021, selling control to a Canadian-American consortium called LUMA Energy.
Unsurprisingly, this did not work. Not only did the grid fail spectacularly during the recent hurricane, it suffered worsening power failures immediately after privatization, including a widespread blackout in April this year while weather was calm. In November last year, a judge issued an arrest warrant for LUMA’s CEO for failing to provide documents to local lawmakers (though it was later rescinded).
Broadcast networks aired more than 60 segments about the power outages, and while a few mentioned Puerto Rico’s grid vulnerabilities, only one of them provided a detailed history of why the grid was vulnerable and what that vulnerability portends for the long recovery post-Fiona.
During the September 20 episode of CBS Mornings, correspondent David Begnaud, who also did exceptional reporting during and after Hurricane Maria, used a nearly eight-minute segment to demand accountability from the utility currently tasked with rebuilding and improving Puerto Rico’s grid, and to amplify the voices of vulnerable people who face immediate risk when critical infrastructure fails. This was by far the strongest segment aired on either broadcast or cable.
Cable news shows on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox collectively aired more than 180 segments that mentioned the power outages. Within those segments, there were scattered discussions of Puerto Rico’s grid vulnerabilities, but they were mostly shallow, with the exception of a few segments that aired on CNN and MSNBC. These few notable segments sought to provide a deeper understanding of the infrastructure issues that plague Puerto Rico and served as brief respite from the looped barrage of traumatic disaster imagery.
During the September 18 episode of CNN Newsroom with Jim Acosta, Acosta asked his guest, former San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, a simple question: “How is it that Puerto Rico's power grid is not any better equipped to handle the situation there?” This allowed her to expound on the systemic problems with the grid, including government mismanagement and profiteering.
CNN host Jim Scuitto interviewed Sergio Marxuach, policy director for the Center for a New Economy, during the September 20 episode of CNN Newsroom and asked him about Puerto Rico’s grid problems, particularly who is responsible.
On MSNBC, host Chris Hays provided viewers with a succinct overview of the grid’s problems, which touched on the federal government’s slow approach to improving Puerto Rico’s grid during the September 19 episode of All In with Chris Hayes. During the September 19 episode of Alex Wagner Tonight, Alex Wagner gave a more detailed breakdown of the corruption, scandal, and federal neglect hindering the grid’s improvement since Hurricane Maria.
Despite these exceptions, national TV news coverage of Hurricane Fiona’s impact on Puerto Rico largely allowed systemic failures, including racial and economic inequalities exposed by Hurricanes Fiona and Maria, to go unchallenged and allowed federal and local officials who failed to make the necessary improvements to Puerto Rico’s vital infrastructure to remain unaccountable. As documentary filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo, whose documentary Landfall looks at Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, told Media Matters in 2020 about the mainstream media’s extreme weather coverage:
Any amount or frequency of media attention does not mean a depth of media attention. You can have a bunch of articles that say a lot of similar things about the scale of the storm, about the death toll, … but very rarely would you see in the mainstream media any sense of depth. For example, I don’t know that an increase in attention to the hurricane yielded an increase in attention to the debt crisis in Puerto Rico. If the mainstream media had unpacked it then we could have a much more conversant population on disaster capitalism. What does it mean? What does it mean that there are people that want to make money off this crisis? How do we hold them accountable? What does a just recovery look like? What is mutual aid? These are all things that people in Puerto Rico are experts on.
National TV news still lags far behind in breaking it cycle of shallow extreme weather coverage
First, broadcast and cable news networks must recognize that storms like Hurricane Fiona (and Ian) are made worse through global warming, which is being primarily driven by the burning of fossil fuels and the reluctance of rich countries to transition immediately away from their fossil fuel economies.
Second, they must recognize that shallow coverage is harmful because it rationalizes the very structural inequalities that often make these events traumatic for so many communities and begin reporting on the policies, practices, and systems that fail places like Puerto Rico.
And fourth, national TV news shows must keep telling the story of those who are recovering after the winds and rain have stopped. Often, the period after the storm is when systemic failures and inequities that keep communities from recovering are most exposed. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists released a statement last week in part calling on “news media organizations at the national level to provide sustained coverage and monitoring of this disaster and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other regions hit by the storm.”
National TV news is adept at showing the carnage of extreme weather events, the hollowed out faces of those who have lost everything, the hand-wringing and empathy of concerned hosts and public officials. What it is still so reluctant to do, and must learn to do immediately, is to hold power accountable; to demand better on behalf of us all, especially those victimized by climate-fueled disasters; and “to awaken, inform, and rouse the people to action.”
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for coverage on corporate broadcast morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC and all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for the term “Fiona” within close proximity of any of the terms “Puerto Rico,” “Dominican Republic,” or “San Juan” from September 17, 2022, through September 23, 2022.
We identified segments, which we defined as instances when the Puerto Rican grid was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the grid. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the grid one another.
We included passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned the grid without another speaker engaging with the comment, and teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the grid to air later in the broadcast.