Media coverage of Hurricane Irma is too narrow, too distortive

Miyah Powe, Contributing Writer

September saw Hurricane Irma sweep over the southeastern United States as well as many small Caribbean islands. Coverage of the devastating storm reveals not only the the media’s tendency to disproportionately structure news narratives around the interests of Americans, but its affinity for sensationalizing tragedies such as Irma, which, at its peak, was classified as a Category 5 hurricane.

Understandably, the reporting of such a massive hurricane is only as predictable (and therefore unpredictable) as the weather itself. The speedy announcement of key information about the nature of wide-reaching hurricanes like Hurricane Irma is extremely paramount, as it allows those in direct or potential danger to prepare for and/or evacuate from at-risk locations. However, in the race to put out instantaneous information, hysteria can cause inaccuracies and the repression of imperative and veracious material.

Major and minor news stations alike rushed out to the impacted sites in a frenzied and unnecessary attempt to beat other stations and publications to the punch. This is often the story of American news, and has been for decades; the hunger to be the first directly in the action or “on the scene” during a significant national tragedy sometimes overrides and ignores rules of safety and common sense. Most of us have watched a television reporter struggling to stand up in the midst of a downpour and other severe conditions. This image was repeated again and again on every major news station during the coverage of Hurricane Irma because as if, somehow, real-time footage of reporters getting knocked around by the elements will and should encourage viewers to stay in their homes and take the situation seriously.

However, it can also have the opposite effect. Not only is this action extremely dangerous for the reporters broadcasting live from, in many cases, the center of the hurricane, but it can mislead viewers as well. Reporters’ presence in intense weather conditions might cause viewers to think that if stations are willing to risk the lives of their own reporters, then they too will be safe. In most cases these dramatic images are nonessential and transform the reporters, as well as the hurricane itself, into a spectacle. This in and of itself can make the hurricane seem surreal, as opposed to an event grounded in reality.

Much of the airtime on American television has been dedicated to the considerable damage done to southern cities; concurrently, entire Caribbean islands have been devastated without so much as a headline. The media’s narrative of the hurricane is aggressively centered on the United States, even though the same hurricane caused comparable destruction to many Caribbean islands. Approximately 44 people have been killed in these independent island nations and territories.

While the result of a hurricane the size of Irma can cause a major city like Miami to experience power outages for weeks, smaller territories with much skimpier resources, like the U.S. Virgin islands, will be spending the next year struggling to get their power structure reestablished.

American and European governments have responded to the disaster by dispatching support to these Caribbean nations in the form of shipments of water, food, and medical supplies. But most regions are still struggling immensely, and feel largely abandoned and ignored.

Moreover, the United States’s sensationalization of the hurricane certainly detracts from actually helping those living beyond American borders who have been tremendously devastated by the storm.

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