Hurricane Dorian dominated the news cycle as it left widespread devastation across the Bahamas and was initially predicted to wreak heavy damage on Florida and elsewhere along the southeastern U.S. coast. A closer look at television and online media coverage of the storm offers interesting insights into the media’s fickle attention span and the limitations of television when it comes to natural disasters.
The timeline below shows the percentage of airtime on BBC News, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News mentioning “Dorian” from Aug. 20 through Sept. 18, using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by the GDELT Project.
Click on the chart for a larger view.
At its peak, the hurricane accounted for more than 9% of CNN’s total airtime, 8% of Fox News’ and 7% of MSNBC’s, showing just how big of a story the storm was. CNN was the quickest to ramp up its coverage, devoting 1.5% of its airtime on Aug. 27 as it made landfall in St. Lucia.
Interestingly, all four channels exhibit a leveling off from Aug. 29 through Sept. 1 even as the storm reached Category 4 status and made landfall in the Bahamas. Coverage doesn’t hit its peak until Sept. 3, after Dorian left the Bahamas. Within a week, after the full scale of the destruction became known, media mentions had become almost nonexistent.
Despite the Bahamas’ historical link to the UK, BBC paid the least attention of the four news outlets to the storm, though it covered the aftermath for slightly longer than the others.
How did television’s rapid ramp-up and ramp-down compare with online coverage? The timeline below plots the combined airtime of the four television stations against worldwide online news coverage in the 65 languages monitored by GDELT of mentions of “Hurricane Dorian.” To plot them both on the same Y scale, they are displayed as Z-Scores (standard deviations from the mean).
Online coverage first began seriously covering the storm on Aug. 24 when it was labeled a tropical depression. Both TV and online attention began rapidly ramping up through Aug. 30, but then television leveled off even as online news continued to increase through the Sept. 1 landfall in the Bahamas. Online coverage remained relatively stable, though it actually declined through Sept. 3 as TV coverage was rising further.
Why did television coverage decline as Dorian made landfall? The most likely explanation is that as the storm cut off most forms of communication, TV outlets had little new material they could report on. The visual nature of broadcasting means news channels rely on the ability of crews to film the devastation and sufficient internet connectivity to transmit those images back to the U.S. Citizen-filmed social media videos similarly require internet connectivity that was largely absent during the worst of the storm.
In contrast, however, the largely textual nature of online coverage meant it could rely on isolated reports and a smattering of social media images and video emerging to generate a steady stream of coverage.
In the aftermath of the storm, TV coverage plummeted on Sept. 7 as it became clear there would be little impact on the U.S., though online coverage did not decline until the following day and both have decreased in lockstep since.
Despite shattered lives and devastated islands, within a week the media had grown bored with the story and moved on.
In the end, the media’s fickle attention span was on full display in its coverage of Hurricane Dorian, while the distinctions between online and television coverage remind us that different mediums often respond very differently to major news events.
RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.