Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Media can't let Puerto Rico become the next Flint

  • As Puerto Rico begins a recovery effort from Hurricane Maria that could take years, the national media have already moved on. This has happened before, specifically in Flint, MI, where residents have been struggling for years to obtain clean drinking water. National media turned away from the ongoing disaster in Flint, and if the past is any indication, the people of Puerto Rico may face the same fate.

    A Media Matters analysis found that from October 3 -- the day President Donald Trump visited the island -- to November 3, prime-time cable news coverage of the recovery in Puerto Rico has fallen dramatically. On October 3, 22 segments ran on prime-time cable news about the recovery efforts. On November 3, that was down to just one segment.

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Save for a small spike in coverage -- which coincided with a tweet from Trump threatening the island’s aid -- prime-time cable news programs have moved on from the ongoing recovery efforts, even though they could continue for years.

    The situations in Puerto Rico and Flint (where lead-tainted water still runs through the pipes) have a good deal in common. For one thing, both have dire impacts on public health. In Puerto Rico, some people who are desperate for water have turned to drinking from a hazardous-waste site. And a recent study found that the lead-poisoned water in Flint had a “horrifyingly large” effect on fetal deaths.

    Both of these crises have hit areas populated primarily by racial minorities and low-income people. As CNN reported, Flint is “mostly black and about 40% poor.” And as the Pew Research Center noted in a 2011 report, “The population of Puerto Rico is almost entirely of Hispanic origin,” and 44 percent of Hispanic people in Puerto Rico “live in poverty.”

    Much has been written of the lackluster media coverage of the crisis in Flint -- specifically, as Harvard’s Shorenstein Center put it, “the failure of national media outlets to respond to the Flint water crisis in an urgent manner.” Then-New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, now a Washington Post media columnist, wrote last year about the Times’ coverage of the crisis, suggesting that if initial reporting “had been followed up with some serious digging, and if the resulting stories had been given prominent display, public officials might have been shamed into taking action long before they did.” Sullivan added, “With its powerful pulpit and reach, The Times could have held public officials accountable and prevented human suffering. That’s what journalistic watchdogs are supposed to do.” It would be reasonable to fear that a similar lack of national media attention could slow down or stall recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.

    Puerto Rico already faces plenty of obstacles to a full recovery. The island’s economic problems (officials declared bankruptcy in May) are expected to make the recovery efforts harder, as are the territory’s infrastructure issues. And, as USA Today reported, donations to Puerto Rico have been lackluster compared to those directed to Florida and Texas after hurricanes struck those regions.

    It’s impossible to know how much increased attention by the national media would impact the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.