The media is entertaining us with Irma, not informing us. See the difference.
Photo by AP Images

The media is entertaining us with Irma, not informing us. See the difference.

September 11, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Hurricane Irma weakens to Category 1, continues along Florida’s northwestern coast

More than 3.3 million businesses and homes had lost power and around 160,000 people were waiting in shelters across Florida as Hurricane Irma continued along the northwestern coast of the state on Monday morning. As of 6:00 a.m. Eastern time, Irma had weakened to a Category 1 storm, with its center 60 miles north of Tampa. Almost 7 million people in the U.S. have been told to evacuate, 6.4 million of them in Florida. No deaths related to the storm have been reported in the state.

Irma made its second U.S. landfall on Marcos Island as a Category 3 storm on Sunday afternoon, after its first on the Florida Keys as a Category 4 on Sunday morning. A storm surge of more than 10 feet was recorded in the Florida Keys. Irma is forecast to cross into southern Georgia on Monday afternoon and eastern Alabama on Monday night, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The storm had been forecast to bring Florida “hurricane-force winds,” “life-threatening storm surge and large breaking waves,” and rainfall that “may cause life-threatening flash floods,” according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm moved through parts of the Caribbean last Thursday and Friday, leading to at least 20 deaths and affecting approximately 1.2 million people, according to BBC.

Affected areas in the Caribbean:

  • St. Martin and St. Barthelemy: 10 people died.
  • Barbuda: Approximately 95 percent of buildings were damaged.
  • Haiti and the Dominican Republic: Neither country was directly affected by Irma. Haiti’s government instructed all establishments and institutions to close, beginning at noon on Thursday, until further notice.
  • Cuba: About 50,000 tourists have evacuated, according to Reuters.

Other affected U.S. areas:

  • Puerto Rico: Three people have died and 60 percent of residents, about one million people, have lost power.
  • Georgia: Governor Nathan Deal ordered a mandatory evacuation for the state’s Atlantic coast. A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta.
  • North Carolina: Governor Roy Coop issued a statewide emergency declaration.

Additional sources: Hurricane Irma Advisory Number 49, Hurricane Irma Intermediate Advisory Number 46A, Hurricane Irma Tropical Cyclone Update, Associated Press, CNN

Distortion Highlights

  • When it comes to life-threatening events, there’s a difference between informing with data, and “informing” with sensationalism.
  • We analyzed a National Hurricane Center bulletin on Irma, and compared it to three news articles. The bulletin was precise, informative and educational.
  • The media reports on Irma, however, were not. If you were looking for facts to inform your decisions related to the storm, you’d have to rummage through the drama first.

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

  • Devastate

    Officials worried that a surge of cholera could follow, as it did last year after Hurricane Matthew devastated the country’s southwest. (The New York Times)

    Hurricane Irma will be ‘devastating’ to US – Fema head. (BBC)

    The National Hurricane Center has warned that the hurricane is increasingly likely to slam into Florida this weekend – as Texas and Louisiana cope with the devastating aftermath caused by Hurricane Harvey. (Fox News)

    Caribbean Devastated as Irma Heads Toward Florida. (The New York Times)

  • Catastrophic

    At least 23 people have died as Hurricane Irma ravaged the Caribbean this week, destroying buildings and uprooting trees on its potentially catastrophic path toward Florida. (Fox News)

    With the hurricane less than 380 miles southeast of Miami, Fla., the first hurricane warnings were issued for parts of southern Florida as the state braced for what could be a catastrophic hit over the weekend. (Fox News)

  • dread

    Government officials in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina pleaded for people to evacuate vulnerable areas, triggering a scramble for the essentials — gasoline, water, sandbags — that, even for hurricane-hardened Floridians, was laced with dread and punctuated with dire warnings from every direction. (The New York Times)

  • trail of destruction

    Hurricane Irma has left a trail of destruction in the Caribbean, affecting an estimated 1.2m people. (BBC)

  • Serially ransacked

    By Thursday night, Irma’s 175-mile-an-hour winds and pelting rains had already serially ransacked the islands of the eastern Caribbean, leaving at least seven dead and whole communities flattened.  (The New York Times)

  • Terror

    But the terror of the storm left people grasping for superlatives. (The New York Times)

  • Batter

    The storm lashed the Turks and Caicos islands and brought torrential rain to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, before battering the north coast of Cuba and the central Bahamas. (BBC)

    The Category 4 storm – the most potent Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever – battered the Turks and Caicos Islands early Friday, where waves as high as 20 feet were expected. (Fox News)

    Haiti and the Dominican Republic: Both battered by the storm, but neither had as much damage as initially feared. (BBC)

  • Ripping

    After ripping through Florida’s Atlantic coast, the storm is expected to move into Georgia and South Carolina. (BBC)

    It also ripped through the islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy and blacked out much of Puerto Rico Thursday. (Fox News)

As Hurricane Irma neared the U.S. this weekend, it was vital for those in its path to have the most useful, precise information possible, so they could prepare and respond accordingly. But if you were looking to get this information from the media, you might have been out of luck.

We analyzed three traditional news outlets and then compared this coverage to an advisory from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Hurricane Center, and the differences were striking.

Media outlets provided some information on Irma’s impact on the Caribbean as well as the evacuations in Florida and other southeastern states, yet there was very little information about the forecasts and accompanying warnings. To get to that information, you would have had to rummage through other subjects, a few quotes and interviews, and, most importantly, a lot of dramatic coverage. Here are three examples of the drama, with the spin terms noted in red:

  • “Reporting from another badly damaged island, Barbuda, the BBC’s Laura Bicker says the destruction there is worse than feared.” (BBC)
  • “With the hurricane less than 380 miles southeast of Miami, Fla., the first hurricane warnings were issued for parts of southern Florida as the state braced for what could be a catastrophic hit over the weekend.” (Fox News)
  • “But the terror of the storm left people grasping for superlatives.” (The New York Times)

These descriptions use vague and emotional words that get us in the gut, so to speak. They stir up emotions, alarming or inspiring fear. Here’s the issue: At the time of this analysis, Irma had made a second landfall on Marco Island, Florida as a life-threatening Category 3 hurricane. It has already claimed at least 25 lives in the Caribbean and at least three in Florida, left hundreds homeless, and had caused an estimated $10 billion in damage in the Caribbean alone, according to Bloomberg. Do we really need fear, drama or sensationalism on top of that?

Compared to the three outlets, NOAA’s advisory not only informs, but also educates in a straightforward, factual manner. It gives readers the most precise and relevant information on Irma: its location, pace, wind speed, central pressure, etc., as well as its most up-to-date forecast. In its “warnings and watches” section, it defines terms like “storm surge” and “hurricane warning” in easy-to-understand terms, and breaks down the specific dangers each phenomenon poses. It gives people in specific locations a suggested course of action, and lets people know when to expect the next advisory.

It’s possible many if not most readers have been following Irma through the news. If they read NOAA’s advisory, they may be better informed. NOAA earned a 100 percent in our ratings system. This means the information it provided was 100 percent data-based, unspun, unbiased and logical. What if all media reports were like this?

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

  • 1% Spun

  • 35% Spun

  • 36% Spun

  • 44% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

The New York Times

“One of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded crescendoed over the Caribbean on Thursday, crumpling islands better known as beach paradises into half-habitable emergency zones and sideswiping Puerto Rico before churning north.”

Irma damaged parts of islands in the Caribbean on Thursday, including Puerto Rico, St. Martin, Barbuda and Haiti.

The New York Times

“But the terror of the storm left people grasping for superlatives.”

There are no facts here.

BBC News

“[Hurricane Jose] is following a similar path to Irma and already hampering relief efforts in some of the worst affected areas.”

Hurricane Jose is a category 4 storm out in the Atlantic.

Headlines

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

Generalizes the breadth of damage done.

Irma’s damage was different on each Caribbean island; it was worse on some than on others. It’s imprecise and incorrect to say the whole region was “devastated.”

Promotes fear and elevates a single person’s perspective to headline news.

The article attributes the quote to a Florida resident — one among millions of Floridians, including people who have decades worth of hurricane experience in the state. Why highlight this specific opinion?

 

*headline retrieved on Sep 10 at 4 p.m. ET

Dramatizes the forecast.

Irma will “roar up” the coast. What exactly does that mean? This headline lacks specific, useful information.

 

*headline retrieved on Sep 10 at 4 p.m. ET

Fact Comparison

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

Florida and South Carolina declared states of emergency. President Trump declared federal states of emergency for Georgia, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Fox News)


Only Fox News mentions that U.S. state and federal governments have declared states of emergency. Including this info could give a better idea of how serious the situation is and could be, and how the U.S. government is handling it.

Measureable forecast data. (Mostly missing from BBC, The New York Times and Fox News)


Only NOAA’s advisory provides information on Irma’s expected rainfall totals, surge heights, minimum pressure in the eye of the storm, the possibility of tornadoes, the possibility of mudslides from rain, swells likely to cause rip current conditions, and the breadth of hurricane and tropical storm-force winds. Of the three news sources we analyzed, only Fox News gives one quantitative predicted surge (wave) height — other than this, none of the outlets mention any of the above information, which would inform people’s hurricane-related decisions and preparedness.

Balance

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

The media’s slant:
  • Hurricane Irma is a “catastrophic” storm that “ravaged” and “ransacked” the Caribbean. It will “devastate” Florida and the southeastern U.S.
  • Residents should be afraid, and there’s chaos as people try to evacuate the affected areas.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Irma has caused destruction, both in deaths and material damage, but terms like “ravaged” and “ransacked” do not provide precise information. It may take weeks to assess the destruction caused by this hurricane. Predicted effects from such storms are estimates, and may or may not match actual damages. Storm weather patterns can change, and the impact of the storm in Florida may be different from the Caribbean.
  • People should be cautious, but not necessarily afraid — they should be aware of government storm reports and be as well-prepared as possible. There’s a history of similar storms in these areas, and governments have plans in place to manage these situations. There were many positive reports — such as smooth evacuation procedures, shelters providing assistance, law enforcement assisting civilians in need, and even neighbors helping each other — but most of them didn’t make the news.