When Mother Nature Becomes a Story
A trio of natural disasters in the Pacific Ocean made major news the week of September 28–October 4, 2009. On September 29, a massive tsunami struck the Samoa Islands and reportedly killed more than 175 people—with that story filling 4.2% of the newshole. One day later, an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia killed an estimated 1,100 people, accounting for 4.1% of the week’s coverage. Earlier in the week, a typhoon in the Philippines (0.9% of the newshole) led to the country’s worst flooding in more than 40 years, with more than 450 people reportedly lost.
Combined, the three tragedies accounted for 9.2% of the newshole from September 28-October 4—making it the second-biggest week of natural disaster coverage in 2009. These stories generated more coverage (15.4% of the airtime studied) on the network newscasts than in any other media sector, a finding that confirms the networks’ general tendency, as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index, to devote significant coverage to natural disasters.
The year’s single biggest week of natural disaster coverage was August 31–September 6. Coverage of wildfires burning near Los Angeles, which destroyed hundreds of homes and killed two firefighters, filled 9.6% of the newshole that week. Combined with coverage of Hurricane Jimena (1.0%), which struck Mexico but caused little damage, natural disasters filled 10.6% of the newshole that week.
The No. 3 week was April 6-12, when an earthquake in Italy (5.8%) left 50,000 homeless and wildfires in Texas and Oklahoma (0.9%) destroyed dozens of homes and killed three people. Those two events combined to fill 6.7% of the newshole. The fourth-biggest week was May 4–10, when wildfires that scorched parts of Santa Barbara, Calif., (2.9%) and storms across the southern states that spawned at least 30 tornados (1.2%) combined to account for 4.1%. The No. 5 week was August 17-23, when Hurricane Bill in the Atlantic (3.0%), Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan (0.2%), and the early phase of the LA fires (0.3%) filled 3.5%. Next came the week of February 9-15 when wildfires across Australia (2.3%) and an out-of-season tornado in Oklahoma (1.2%) registered at 3.5%.
Still, these disasters pale in comparison to what was, by far, the biggest natural disaster story since PEJ began tracking media coverage in January 2007. The October 21-26, 2007 wildfires in Southern California that destroyed an estimated 1,500 homes and claimed more than a dozen lives filled 37.5% of the overall newshole that week. Those fires were the second biggest story of 2007, trailing only the massacre that left 33 dead on the Virginia Tech campus, which filled 50.9% of the newshole from April 15-20, 2007.
Tricia Sartor and Dana Page of PEJ