There’s a narrative in the media that the media is ignoring the flooding in Louisiana.
The public editor of the New York Times wrote the Times didn’t give it enough coverage. Mike Scott of the Louisiana-based Times-Picayune wrote on August 16 that the Times had only published its first story two days after the rains began.
But is it really true that the Louisiana flooding has been ignored? It’s a major news story, and yet days after the Times published its rebuke of itself, the narrative that Louisiana has been or is being ignored continues to spread down the media stream to columnists and bloggers. If the city of New York were destroyed in a hypothetical super storm, wouldn’t the media cover it?
We actually have precedents we can look at. We don’t need to wonder about hypotheticals. Just months ago in June floods in West Virginia killed 25 people. The floods in Louisiana killed 13. The number of houses that were damaged is reportedly very high–the governor puts it at 40,000. But there are natural disasters that killed more while also causing much, if not as much, damage. (By comparison, West Virginia’s governor said “thousands” of homes were damaged, but CNN reported the significantly lower total of 1,200. It may be too soon to know the property damage in dollars for either.)
Two more large-scale floods: those that killed 21 in Utah in 2015 after Hurricane Linda and the 2010 floods that killed 21 in Tennessee and 10 more in Kentucky and Mississippi while causing over $2 billion in damage.
A theory can be tested: If a dozen or more people were killed in say, Nashville, Tenn. or Hildale, Utah, would the media pay more attention to it than they are doing to the Louisiana floods?
I decided to test the theory by searching for how many articles each of a few major media outlets published on the four disasters. I chose the websites of the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, NBC News, and The Atlantic, because they are all representative of some major, influential area of media, from national newspapers to cable and broadcast news to magazines read by opinion-makers. I added Breitbart.com as well, when I noticed that Breitbart has published a large number of articles about the Louisiana flooding.
Then I searched each website on Google for articles under the keyword “[name of state] floods” for 2 weeks from when the disaster started.
The conclusion? Louisiana hasn’t been ignored over the long term. In fact, the disaster there has gotten much more press in comparison with floods that killed up to twice as many people.
In every outlet surveyed, the LA flood topped the number of articles or videos published online–most by a significant margin. Those outlets that devoted more coverage to the relatively ignored floods were more equitable with coverage, but NBCNews.com still reported one more story on Louisiana than on West Virginia.
WV was the second-most covered disaster in most of the outlets surveyed, with the exception of the NY Times. It had the highest death toll in an individual state. The least covered floods in each outlet were those in Tennessee and Utah.
Others doing the same survey could come to slightly different results depending on whether or not they include news summaries that aggregate multiple daily headlines (I did) and CNN transcripts (I didn’t if the same news report was already included in the search results as a video), but the margin for most of the news outlets is so large that it wouldn’t change the rankings at top.
Photo of aftermath of Katrina, via US Navy.