Major U.S. Television Media Silent on Race-Based Risks of Extreme Weather
Major broadcast news outlets in the United States are consistently failing to tell a crucially important story about a wide range of epic disasters, from hurricanes to the pandemic—that people living in poor, non-white communities are at far greater risk of grievous harm.
When Hurricane Florence roared ashore on the southeast coast of North Carolina in September 2018, reports Grist, it pummelled communities already in desperate straits: impoverished, awash in industrial pollution, and still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Matthew two years earlier.
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“People are pretty much left on their own to try to navigate out of danger,” said Naeema Muhammad, organizing director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. Residents of the “mostly Black and brown communities” damaged by Florence—including the towns of New Bern, Lumberton, and Faison—had to evacuate themselves through floodwaters heavily contaminated with chemicals, coal ash, and human and animal waste.
But these stories have been unheard by most North Americans, writes Grist. A recent Media Matters report shows that none of the major U.S. national programs—not ABC’s World News Tonight, CBC Evening News, or NBC Nightly News—considered the story of Florence’s impact on marginalized communities worth telling. (Publicly funded PBS Newshour, meanwhile, did provide small but “substantive” coverage of the disparate impacts of hurricanes on non-white and low-income citizens.)
And those media outlets had plenty of opportunity to give voice to the issue: 669 segments about hurricanes and tropical storms were produced from 2017 to 2019, but “not one addressed the fact that these extreme weather events did not affect everyone in their paths equally—that the devastation they brought to poor communities and communities of colour was far worse,” writes Grist. That was despite the availability of “ample research highlighting this disparity.”
Failing to tell such stories “creates a huge blind spot in people’s perception, public perception, and policy-makers’ perception,” and “sends a message that there are some people in society that we collectively deem not important, that it is not worth saving their lives,” said Juan Declet-Baretto, a social scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The Media Matters report also shows that media outlets keep a similar silence on other inequities. “When it comes to the novel coronavirus, the organization found that the same three corporate broadcast news shows failed to report on the connection between air pollution and the high COVID-19 death rate among people of colour, especially Black people,” writes Grist.
Many people have had enough. “We have all of this environmental degradation in our communities, where people feel like they got a right to dump crap that they don’t want onto poor communities, and predominantly people of colour, without a thought, and without being held accountable for the damages that they’ve caused,” said Muhammad. “Communities gotta be made to prove that they’re being harmed when all this stuff happens.”
As the pandemic rages and hurricane season approaches, the public must press U.S. media to get out into affected communities and tell their stories, writes Grist. “The evidence is already there,” said Muhammad. “If you sit there and hear the story and look around, people are not making this shit up. It’s real. People are living this stuff every single day.”