Hurricane Maria reached Category 5. Some of the media’s spin did too.
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Hurricane Maria reached Category 5. Some of the media’s spin did too.

September 19, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Category 5 Hurricane Maria forecast to move through Caribbean

Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm currently over the Atlantic Ocean, is forecast to move across the Caribbean through Wednesday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Hurricane Center. Maria made landfall on the island of Dominica Monday night with maximum sustained winds of 160 mph. Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said Maria caused “widespread devastation” on the island.

Maria is forecast to move towards the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico Tuesday night and Wednesday as a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. As of Tuesday morning, NOAA said Maria is located 150 miles southeast of St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and moving west-northwest at 10 mph.

In Puerto Rico, 450 shelters opened starting Monday afternoon, and Governor Ricardo Rossello said the U.S. territory had requested a federal emergency declaration. Two weeks ago, Hurricane Irma passed north of Puerto Rico, killing three people and causing a power outage for 60 percent of the island. NOAA has issued a tropical storm warning for Barbuda, where Irma destroyed over 90 percent of buildings. Philmore Mullin, the head of the National Office of Disaster Services for Antigua and Barbuda, said 40 shelters would be opened for Maria.

There is a hurricane warning in effect for Dominica, Guadeloupe, St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat, Martinique, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques. This means hurricane conditions, such as destructive winds, rainfall, storm surge flooding and flash flooding, are expected within each of the warning areas.

Distortion Highlights

  • If there’s ever a time for the media to inform, rather than sensationalize, it’s when reporting on potentially life-threatening situations.
  • As Maria reached the highest hurricane category levels, some outlets spun the news using dramatic and imprecise terms.
  • See how the most spun coverage compared to the original, data-based source of information.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

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

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Ferocious

    In a 5 p.m. advisory, National Hurricane Center forecasters said the ferocious storm was about 45 miles east-southeast of the island, with sustained winds of 130 mph. (Miami Herald)

  • Beast

    Maria formed much further east, so it hasn’t had time to undergo eyewall replacements that built Irma into a beast capable of spreading devastating winds across islands and from coast to coast in Florida. (Miami Herald)

  • Path of destruction

    This map shows Hurricane Irma’s wind history as it carved a path of destruction through the Leeward Islands last week, battering the north coast of Puerto Rico with hurricane-force winds for nearly six hours Wednesday evening. (Miami Herald)

  • Catastrophic

    Officials said 450 shelters will be opened starting this afternoon and warned of possible catastrophic damage and a possible collapse of the “vulnerable” electrical system. (ABC News)

  • Ravaged

    On Friday, the hurricane may come close to the Turks and Caicos and southeast Bahamas, which were ravaged by Irma.  (The Washington Post)

  • Escape

    Some models suggest it could find an escape route out to sea, remaining offshore from the U.S. East Coast, but it is way too early to sound the all-clear.

  • Ballooned

    Maria ballooned into an intense Category 4 hurricane Monday afternoon as it neared the tiny island of Dominica on a track that will likely take it over Puerto Rico by mid week. (Miami Herald)

  • Troubling

    This storm is rapidly intensifying which is a troubling scenario for the islands it will sweep across. (The Washington Post)

There’s a reason emergency notices are written precisely, succinctly and featuring only the most vital information. They’re intended to guide people through emergency situations, from administering life-saving aid to evacuating entire territories. Can you imagine what would happen if those notices were written in a sensational way?

We saw something similar with the news about Hurricane Maria, as some media outlets used dramatic and imprecise terms to describe the forecast. We thought a comparison between the most and least spun information sources (The Washington Post and NOAA, respectively) might bring the point home.

A dramatic lead

The wicked 2017 hurricane season is set to deliver its next two punishing blows from Hurricanes Maria and Jose.

That’s the Post’s lead sentence. Compare it to the opening sentence of NOAA’s advisory: “…Maria becomes an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane…the eye and intense inner core is expected to pass near Dominica during the next few hours…”

NOAA’s is specific and to-the-point, providing two crucial bits of information: Maria’s category upgrade and the expected trajectory of its eye and inner core. As for “extremely dangerous,” it reads like spin, but it’s actually a term used in the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale (see Context for more details).

When imprecision makes a difference

The worst part of the storm is also likely to pass a good deal south of beleaguered Barbuda and Antigua, reeling from Hurricane Irma, but they may still get brushed by some strong wind gusts and heavy showers.

The imprecisions make a one-to-one comparison difficult with NOAA’s advisory — which part of the storm is the “worst” and how far is “a good deal”? The closest data NOAA provided to the Post’s was, “the center of Maria will move near Dominica and the adjacent Leeward Islands during the next few hours, over the extreme northeastern Caribbean Sea …” Is that what the Post meant?

Drama + speculation = bad news

[St. Croix] was one of the few U.S. Virgin Islands that was spared Irma’s wrath, but may well get hammered by Maria.

“Hammered” as in see 6 to 9 feet of possible storm surge, or 10 to 15 inches of rain? St. Croix and others may be directly affected by Maria, so it’s better if they can prepare with accurate information, rather than gauge the possible effects based on vague, emotional descriptions. For those not in the storm path, having the data would help them be informed about what is going on.  

Small imprecision, big implication

The islands directly affected by the storm’s core face the likelihood of destructive winds of 120 to 150 mph and 6 to 12 inches of rain … which will cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides.

NOAA’s advisory said, “Rainfall on all of these islands could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides.” The seemingly small imprecision could have real effects on people’s decision making process and encourage fearful responses to the information.

The more the media spins the news, the more we grow accustomed to it. But especially in situations like these, when some people are making what could be life-and-death decisions, and others just want to be informed, it’s important to leave imprecision and the more sensational aspects of news reporting out of it.

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

  • 2% Spun

  • 48% Spun

  • 53% Spun

  • 66% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

The Washington Post

“Some models suggest it could find an escape route out to sea, remaining offshore from the U.S. East Coast, but it is way too early to sound the all-clear.”

According to the Miami Herald, some “models take the storm offshore up the U.S. east coast” and “landfall looks unlikely.”

Miami herald

“Maria ballooned into an intense Category 4 hurricane Monday afternoon as it neared the tiny island of Dominica on a track that will likely take it over Puerto Rico by mid week.”

On Monday at 5 p.m. EDT, Maria was centered 45 miles south, south-east of Dominica as a Category 4 hurricane.

Fact Comparison

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

This season is expected to be an above average year, with five to nine hurricanes and two to five major storms predicted. (Miami Herald)


This statement may misrepresent or exaggerate NOAA’s original prediction for the 2017 storm season in two ways: the likelihood of the season being “above average,” and whether the predicted number of storms may also be considered “above average.” The exaggeration may support the idea that major storms are increasing, which we discussed in a previous analysis’ Context section.

NOAA predicted a 45 percent chance of an “above-normal” season, a 35 percent chance of a “near-normal” season, and a 20 percent chance of a “below-normal” season. The agency also predicted a “70 percent likelihood of 11 to 17 named storms, of which 5 to 9 could become hurricanes, including 2 to 4 major hurricanes.” This prediction may fall in line with annual averages, which NOAA calculates (based on 50 years of data) as 12 named storms and six hurricanes, including three “major” hurricanes. For information on storm-related terms and categorizations, see the Context section below.

Headlines

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

Implies there have been too many hurricanes this season.

The quote comes from a resident of St. Martin, not a weather expert. When positioned in the headline, it could be misleading or mistaken for an expert’s opinion. The Times article itself says “experts say” the number of hurricanes this year “is not unheard-of.”

Personifies the weather, as if the hurricane is “powering up” intentionally.

Maria’s intensity is not increasing “for” the purpose of striking “another blow to the Caribbean.” It’s just a hurricane in the Caribbean Sea, doing what hurricanes do.

Informs with an objective, verifiable fact.

The BBC’s headline gives readers relevant, factual information, with no added drama.

Context

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

NOAA advisories and the news coverage that follows them often include specialized terms to describe a storm’s intensity, as well as the possible effects on human life and property. Sometimes the terms look like spin (like “catastrophic” damage), but the agency uses them specifically to differentiate one storm from another. Here’s a quick breakdown of the most commonly used terms.

What makes a storm “watch” different from a storm “warning”?

According to NOAA, whether an area is listed under a storm “warning” or “watch” depends on the storm’s likelihood to affect that area. When a warning is issued, hurricane or storm conditions are expected somewhere within the warning area. When a watch is issued, hurricane conditions are possible within the watch area. A watch is typically issued 48 hours before the anticipated first occurrence of tropical-storm-force winds.

What does each hurricane category mean?

The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale defines the “category” of hurricane (1 through 5) and the potential for property damage based on wind speed. Anything beyond a Category 2 is considered a “major” storm.

Category 1 (74-95 mph wind speeds): Winds are considered “very dangerous” and may produce “some” damage. NOAA further details the possible damage as “well-constructed frame homes could have damage to roof, shingles, vinyl siding and gutters.” The agency also notes the potential for broken tree branches and power outages.

Category 2 (96-110 mph wind speeds): NOAA considers these winds “extremely dangerous” with the potential for “extensive” damage, in which “well-constructed frame homes could sustain major roof and siding damage.” Shallow-rooted trees may snap or be uprooted, and power losses may occur.

Category 3 (111-129 mph wind speeds): These winds may cause “devastating” damage, in which “well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking and gable ends.” NOAA also notes that “many trees” may be snapped or uprooted, and both electricity and water may be unavailable for several days or weeks.

Category 4 (130-156 mph wind speeds): At this level, NOAA predicts “catastrophic” damage in which “well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and/or some exterior walls.” Due to the increase in the number of downed trees and power lines, the agency says most affected areas will be “uninhabitable for weeks or months.”

Category 5 (157 mph or higher wind speeds): Also considered “catastrophic,” NOAA says “a high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse.” As with Category 4, it says the areas may be uninhabitable for weeks or months due to the degree of possible damage.

What’s the difference between surges and tides?

First are astronomical tides, which is how tides work. In other words, the gravitational forces of the Earth, moon and sun affect tides around the planet, causing them to rise and lower.

A storm surge is an “abnormal rise of water generated by a storm, over and above the predicted astronomical tide” that happens when a storm’s winds push water toward the shore. And a storm tide is a rise in the water level due to the combination of the astronomical tides and a storm surge.

NOAA reports that damages from storm surges and tides come from flooding (or “extreme flooding” in the case of storm tides), battering waves that can demolish structures, erosion of beaches and coastal highways, and the intrusion of saltwater into estuaries and bayous.

You can find more storm definitions in our Hurricane Harvey coverage.

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