In an emergency, data is better than drama. The Harvey coverage hasn’t always delivered.
Photo by AP Images

In an emergency, data is better than drama. The Harvey coverage hasn’t always delivered.

August 29, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Tropical storm Harvey causes flooding in Texas; as many as 9 reported dead

Tropical Storm Harvey has caused heavy rain and tornadoes in parts of Texas, flooding in the nation’s fourth-largest city Houston, and the deaths of as many as nine people. The storm has left about 280,000 without power in the state since the storm made landfall on Friday.

On Sunday, the National Weather Service (NWS) forecasted up to 50 inches of total rain for some areas of the state, and parts of Houston received as much as 24 inches of rain in a period of 24 hours. The Associated Press reported on Monday that 2 more feet of rain was forecast for areas of Houston where more than 30 inches had already fallen. Historically, Houston gets an average of about 47 inches of annual rainfall, according to the NWS.

The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times reported on Monday that local officials had confirmed nine deaths. Reuters reported seven deaths related to the storm, while AP reported three. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Sunday that a woman had drowned in southwest Houston while attempting to drive through high water.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said 250 roads were closed across the state and issued a federal disaster declaration for 19 counties. He also said 1,800 military personnel would assist with rescue efforts and cleanup across the state. President Donald Trump is scheduled to travel to Texas on Tuesday, according to the White House.

Harvey made landfall in Texas on Friday as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of more than 100 mph. It has since been downgraded to a tropical storm and, by Sunday, was nearly stationary over the state with maximum sustained winds of about 40 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC).

Relief efforts

Local officials said between 1,500 and 2,000 people have been rescued from floods in and around Houston, which has a city population of 2.3 million people. Rivers and channels have overflowed their banks and streets have flooded.

The U.S. Coast Guard in Houston has received over 300 requests for help, and has asked the New Orleans and Air National Guard for additional helicopters. The NHC said the storm could continue in the city as late as Thursday.

Temporary shelters have been set up to provide water, food and baby supplies in various locations throughout the city, including at George R. Brown Convention Center. All commercial flights at Houston’s Bush International and William P. Hobby airports were cancelled Sunday.

Distortion Highlights

  • When people’s lives are at risk, access to data-based information can help them survive.
  • Yet at times, the Harvey coverage has used dramatic, emotionally charged language that could encourage fear or hysteria instead of rational thinking.
  • Read on for some examples.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Mammoth

    The fiercest hurricane to hit the U.S. in more than a decade came ashore late Friday about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Corpus Christi as a mammoth Category 4 storm with 130 mph (209 kph) winds. (AP)

  • Batter

    Up to 2,000 people have been rescued from floods in and around Houston, as Tropical Storm Harvey continues to batter Texas with heavy rains. (BBC)

    (Caption) Texas took a battering and is witnessing severe flooding (BBC)

    The catastrophic rainfall came only a day after Harvey battered Texas’ southern coastline, after making landfall with wind speeds exceeding 100 miles an hour. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Onslaught

    Yet as has occurred two other times in recent years, including during the Memorial Day holiday in 2015, they failed to withstand the onslaught from a tremendous downpour. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Pummeling

    Harvey was also pummeling San Antonio and Austin, the logical locations for fleeing Houstonians. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Slammed

    Harvey slammed into Texas as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 130 miles per hour … (Reuters)

  • Teeming

    And still the rain comes teeming down, bouncing off the ground and bursting out of drains. (BBC)

  • Dredged up

    The size and strength of Harvey dredged up memories of Katrina … (Reuters)

In an emergency like Tropical Storm Harvey, authorities often tell people to stay calm and they give clear instructions on what to do to stay safe. The media can help these efforts by providing clear, concrete information about the storm, such as data about forecasts and risks. Unfortunately, the coverage of Harvey hasn’t always done this, and has instead mixed the facts with dramatic or fear-inspiring language.

To get an experience of how this can influence people’s perception of the facts, consider the following sentences from the coverage we analyzed. We’ve stripped each line of its spin and included a data-based version so you can contrast the two.

How do you feel and what do you think when you read the red highlighted words? How do they influence your understanding of the storm, and how could they affect the actions you might take if you were in Texas?

1) Associated Press: “The fiercest hurricane to hit the U.S. in more than a decade came ashore late Friday.”

The Knife: Harvey made landfall on Friday. It was the first Category 4 hurricane to reach the U.S. since Charley in 2004.

 

2) Reuters: “Harvey slammed into Texas as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 130 miles per hour (210 kph).”

The Knife: Harvey made landfall in Texas as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 130 miles per hour (210 kph).

 

3) BBC: “Tropical Storm Harvey continues to batter Texas with heavy rains”

The Knife: There are heavy rains in Texas. Harvey could bring up to 50 inches (1.3 m) of total rain for some areas of the state.

 

4) The Wall Street Journal: “Harvey was also pummeling San Antonio and Austin”

The Knife: San Antonio and Austin received 3 inches and 9 inches in total rainfall, respectfully, between 8 a.m. Friday and 8 a.m. Monday.

There’s no denying the destruction caused by Harvey and its unprecedented amount of rainfall. But its effects both materially and on people can be reported without infusing facts with emotionally charged and dramatic words. Sensational reporting may encourage fear and hysteria instead of rational thinking. And in a case like Harvey where people’s lives are at risk, making better decisions can be the difference between life and death.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 30% Spun

  • 35% Spun

  • 48% Spun

  • 52% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

Associated Press

“As the water rose, the National Weather Service offered another ominous forecast: Before the storm that arrived Friday as a Category 4 hurricane is gone, some parts of Houston and its suburbs could receive as much as 50 inches (1.3 meters) of rain.”

The National Weather Service forecast that Harvey, which was a Category 4 hurricane on Friday, could bring up to 50 inches (1.3 m) of rain to the greater Houston area.

BBC News

“Up to 2,000 people have been rescued from floods in and around Houston, as Tropical Storm Harvey continues to batter Texas with heavy rains.”

Up to 2,000 people have been rescued from floods in the greater Houston area, as rainfall from Tropical Storm Harvey continues.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

Tropical Storm Allison dropped more than 40 inches (102 cm) of rain in Texas in June 2001, flooded 70,000 homes and caused $9 billion in damage. (Reuters)


Data on the damage from Allison varies, depending on the source. For instance, according to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “more than 14,000 homes were destroyed or received major damage, and nearly an additional 34,000 homes incurred at least minor damage.” Together that’s 48,000. A risk assessment website reported 54,000 damaged homes. Reuters cites the 70,000 figure, which corresponds with numbers on Wikipedia and with a slideshow created by a consulting firm called Halff Associates.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Opinion, not fact. “Chilling might be a good descriptor for a scary movie, but encouraging fear is not ideal for objective news.

Emotional charge. Many people are likely already feeling scared, and words like “anxiety” and “frantic” may encourage some to feel more worried. Does this serve the purpose of informing the public?

Military language such as “under siege” sensationalizes what is actually a natural weather event.

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • Harvey was a “mammoth” storm that “slammed” Houston and sent “devastating” floods pouring into the city, with an ominous forecast for more rain.
  • Everyone should be afraid and the situation is likely to get worse given the forecast of more rain and the possibility of tornadoes.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Although this tropical storm is destructive, hurricanes and storms usually are. It’s not unexpected in the Gulf coast area, which has had serious hurricanes in the past as well. This history can help us understand the potential effects of such storms, and hopefully plan accordingly. The drama doesn’t help.
  • We don’t necessarily have to fear hurricanes. Fear doesn’t make us safer, and it doesn’t necessarily help a community prepare itself or recover. It could actually be counterproductive and encourage panic.

Context

Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

The following terms are used by the National Hurricane Center to categorize storms:

Hurricane: Also called a tropical cyclone, a hurricane occurs when the maximum sustained surface wind is 74 mph (119 km/hr) or more. There are five categories of hurricane: 1) have wind speeds 74 – 95 mph; 2) wind speeds 96 – 110 mph; 3) wind speeds 110 – 129 mph; 4) wind speeds 130 – 156 mph; and 5) wind speeds greater than 156 mph.

Tropical Depression: A tropical cyclone in which the maximum sustained surface wind speed is 38 mph (or 62 km/hr) or less.

Tropical Storm: A tropical cyclone in which the maximum sustained surface wind speed ranges from 39 mph (or 63 km/hr) to 73 mph (or 118 km/hr).

Maximum Sustained Surface Wind: The standard measure of a tropical cyclone’s intensity. When referring to a weather system, it’s the highest one-minute average wind (at an elevation of 10 meters with an unobstructed exposure) associated with that weather system at a particular point in time.