Corporate broadcast evening news never discussed the disproportionate harm major hurricanes caused to marginalized communities
Molly Butler / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Three years of corporate broadcast news hurricane coverage failed to mention specific risks to marginalized communities

As hurricane season begins, broadcast news must recognize and report how and why the climate crisis, like the coronavirus pandemic, is disparately affecting poor and minority communities

Broadcast TV news outlets never fail to cover extreme weather events like hurricanes. But all too often they cover these storms as isolated events, and rarely as evidence that the climate crisis is happening right now -- including how and why the impacts of these climate-fueled events are unfairly distributed among poor communities and communities of color. Although climate change affects everyone, those on the frontlines of the climate crisis have far fewer resources to adapt, evacuate, and rebuild after devastating disasters. This ongoing silence has dire implications, as vulnerable communities will likely still be grappling with COVID-19 during a potentially active hurricane season.

A Media Matters analysis of coverage of seven hurricanes and one tropical storm that occurred between 2017 to 2019 found that none of the 669 corporate broadcast evening news segments about these storms explicitly discussed their outsized impact on low-income communities or communities of color. Only PBS ran segments that made this connection.

Media Matters analyzed the evening news programs for ABC, CBS, and NBC from January 1, 2017-December 31, 2019, for coverage of Hurricanes Dorian, Florence, Harvey, Humberto, Irma, Maria, and Michael, and Tropical Storm Imelda. In addition, weeknight episodes of PBS NewsHour were included for a comparison point, but they were not included in the full dataset.

  • Key Findings

    • Corporate broadcast TV outlets — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 669 segments about Hurricanes Dorian, Florence, Harvey, Humberto, Irma, Maria, and Michael and Tropical Storm Imelda during their evening news programs. None of the segments explicitly mentioned their disproportionate impacts on low-income communities or communities of color.
    • Nine out of the 233 total segments PBS NewsHour aired about these storms included a discussion about the ways extreme weather disproportionately hurts poor people and people of color.
  • Introduction

  • Although the consequences of catastrophic climate change -- such as the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like hurricanes -- pose an “existential threat” to the entire human civilization, low-income communities and communities of color in the United States often suffer a disproportionate share of the harm from these events. However, broadcast evening news viewers will rarely, if ever, see stories about how America’s legacy of racism, economic exploitation, and environmental injustice have made the poor and communities of color more vulnerable to the perils of climate change. 

  • Extreme weather events like hurricanes disproportionately affect marginalized communities

  • Hurricane Harvey was “the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in United States history,” devastating African American and Hispanic communities in Texas in 2017, while Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria, which decimated the island less than a month later. In 2018, poor and Black communities in North Carolina suffered greater harm from the flooding caused by Hurricane Florence and the pollution from hog manure pits, coal ash dumps, and other industrial waste the storm unleashed. And Hurricane Dorian obliterated the poor shantytowns of the Great Abaco and Grand Bahama islands in September 2019.

    It is undeniable that minority and low-income communities suffer more from climate disasters, as experts have been warning about for years. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in 2018:

  • Risks posed by climate variability and change vary by region and sector and by the vulnerability of people experiencing impacts. Social, economic, and geographic factors shape the exposure of people and communities to climate-related impacts and their capacity to respond. Risks are often highest for those that are already vulnerable, including low-income communities, some communities of color, children, and the elderly. Climate change threatens to exacerbate existing social and economic inequalities that result in higher exposure and sensitivity to extreme weather and climate-related events and other changes. Marginalized populations may also be affected disproportionately by actions to address the underlying causes and impacts of climate change, if they are not implemented under policies that consider existing inequalities.

  • In 2016, federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a Climate and Health Assessment report that found human-induced climate change “will have the largest health impact on vulnerable populations including those with low incomes, some communities of color, limited English proficiency and immigrant groups, Indigenous peoples,” and others.

    Low-income and minority communities are more vulnerable to the risks of extreme weather because they are more likely to live in neighborhoods and buildings that are more susceptible to storm impacts, and they are also less able to afford the economic costs of evacuating, rebuilding, or relocating. These inequities are often compounded by discriminatory practices in receiving federal aid.

    This makes corporate evening news’ failure to cover the socioeconomic disparities in the impacts of extreme weather events particularly ignominious: These events expose vulnerabilities stemming from historic and systemic inequities, but they too often go unexplained -- partly because broadcast TV news fails to even do the minimum of reporting on who is being harmed the most, let alone delving into why some communities are being disproportionately affected.

  • Broadcast evening news coverage of hurricanes never mentioned their disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color

  • From January 1, 2017, to December 31, 2019, broadcast evening news shows (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News) aired a total of 669 segments about eight major hurricanes and tropical storms: Dorian, Florence, Harvey, Humberto, Imelda, Irma, Maria, and Michael. None of the segments discussed the inequitable impact these extreme weather events had on low-income communities and communities of color.

  • Broadcast evening news coverage of hurricanes never mentioned their disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color

    Citation John Whitehouse / Media Matters

  • In addition to analyzing climate change coverage on the corporate broadcast networks, we examined coverage on public broadcaster PBS' weekday nightly news show, PBS NewsHour.

    Unlike its broadcast counterparts, nine of PBS NewsHour’s 233 segments about the eight major hurricanes from 2017 to 2019 addressed the challenges that poor and marginalized communities face from these extreme weather events.

    Corporate networks aired follow-up stories in the months and years after storms like Harvey and Maria, but most of these were human interest stories about people being reunited with their pets, celebrity charity efforts, or individual stories of success. Although PBS NewsHour also ran some of these human-interest stories, at least some of its coverage of recovery efforts underscored how the devastating impacts of climate change posed unique and specific challenges to vulnerable communities.

  • Though rare, PBS NewsHour ran segments that contextualized the challenges marginalized communities face from extreme weather

  • Although less than 4% of PBS NewsHour’s segments about these storms discussed the disproportionate harm they caused to low-income communities and communities of color, the segments that did air were substantive and contextualized the challenges faced by marginalized communities before, during, and after extreme weather events.

    For example, a PBS segment aired in the wake of Hurricane Harvey discussed the unique challenges the storm posed to undocumented families in Texas, which included fear of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the inability to qualify for disaster aid.

    From the September 1, 2017, episode of PBS NewsHour:

  • In early 2018, PBS NewsHour ran a segment about the more than 30,000 Texas residents still living in temporary housing months after Harvey and the roughly 80% of hurricane victims who did not have flood insurance. Notably, PBS featured the story of a low-income person of color who was displaced by the storm and trying to return to their home, who noted, “A flood does care if you’re rich or poor because if you live in certain areas that are more flood-prone and there hasn’t been zoning to say that either you can’t live in those areas or if you do, we’re going to make sure that your house is up to a code where it won’t be devastated, that absolutely makes a difference.”

    From the January 29, 2018, episode of PBS NewsHour:

  • PBS NewsHour aired a story about Hurricane Florence’s devastation of New Bern, North Carolina, where the poor, Black residents of one of the city’s housing projects tried to cope with preexisting challenges that were made worse by the storm. Like the January 29 segment, the story was told through the voice and perspective of those most affected.

    From the September 17, 2018, episode of PBS NewsHour:

  • Although PBS NewsHour has a lot of room for improvement in incorporating these stories into more of its extreme weather coverage, it ran at least a few substantive reports that explored how and why the climate crisis affects communities too often ignored or overlooked by the corporate broadcast networks.

  • COVID-19 could pose formidable challenges during a busy hurricane season

  • Broadcast TV news outlets have not acquitted themselves well during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also disproportionately affected people of color.

    Media Matters found that from late March through April, none of the broadcast news shows connected the racially disparate death rates from COVID-19 to air pollution or other environmental determinants, despite research showing a correlation between poor air quality and worse COVID-19 health outcomes. The broadcast news networks were also mostly silent about the Trump administration’s most recent assault on environmental protections that could make poor and minority communities more vulnerable to the virus.

    Now, the COVID-19 crisis threatens to push into a potentially busy hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through November 30. According to the NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center model for 2020, there is “a 60% chance of an above-normal season, a 30% chance of a near-normal season and only a 10% chance of a below-normal season.”

    How will COVID-19 shape official responses to extreme weather events in 2020?

    Although states like California are scrambling to develop plans to protect firefighters from contracting COVID-19 during wildfire season, the recent devastating flooding in Michigan showed what can happen to the best-laid plans. Faced with a “500-year flood” on May 19, Michiganders had to carefully weigh the risks of evacuating during a global pandemic that has already killed more than 5,000 people in the state. During this public health crisis, officials also had to deal with the challenge of sheltering and socially distancing up to 10,000 people who were displaced by the flood. As the Detroit Free Press succinctly summarized, “It was a crisis layered on top of another crisis.”

    It is not hard to see how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could present a logistical nightmare for already vulnerable communities faced with a potentially active 2020 hurricane season and other extreme weather events.

  • Broadcast TV news must contextualize the challenges faced by marginalized communities

  • Media coverage of extreme weather events must be shaped by a deep understanding of the many challenges and inequities faced by marginalized communities, and how these conditions make them more susceptible to the consequences of climate change. Weather reports, disaster footage, and death tolls are not enough.

    Broadcast TV news shows must both report on and contextualize the challenges extreme weather and COVID-19 pose to low-income and minority communities. As the scholar Adolph Reed Jr. and public health researcher Merlin Chowkwanyun noted in their paper “Racial Health Disparities and Covid-19 — Caution and Context”:

  • The experience of past epidemics — and recent natural disasters — suggests that the most socially marginalized populations will suffer disproportionately.

    It is equally important, however, that in documenting Covid-19 racial disparities, we contextualize such data with adequate analysis. Disparity figures without explanatory context can perpetuate harmful myths and misunderstandings that actually undermine the goal of eliminating health inequities. Such clarifying perspective is required not just for Covid-19 but also for future epidemics.

  • With an average of nearly 25 million viewers a day watching their evening news shows during the coronavirus pandemic, broadcast news outlets still play an important role in informing a wide swath of people about the current conditions and also clarifying the stakes of the crisis we are facing. Now is the time for corporate news networks to use that platform to tell the complete story of how low-income communities and minority communities experience climate change, why they are at greater risk, and what public policy solutions exist to address these challenges.

  • Methodology

  • This report analyzes when and how climate justice was mentioned during segments on the following extreme weather events: Dorian, Florence, Harvey, Humberto, Imelda, Irma, Maria, and Michael, representing eight major hurricanes and tropical storms that occurred from January 1, 2017, to December 31, 2019.

    We reviewed transcripts in the Nexis database for four nightly news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour) to find mentions of demographic and socioeconomic terms such as “African American,” “black,” “Latin,” “Hispanic,” “low income,” “poor,” or “immigrant,” among others, during extreme weather segments. PBS NewsHour was included for comparison and not included in the full dataset.