The Disaster Won’t Be Televised: 7 Reasons Why the Louisiana Floods Did Not Make National News

Editor’s Note: In the wake of the catastrophic flooding in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I asked Professor Kathleen Searles of Louisiana State University to do a guest blog about the storm. Professor Searles is an expert in political communication, and was particularly concerned with the lack of as well as the quality of the coverage of the floods. Here’s her take on why the national news did not  cover a flooding event that is one of the worse we’ve seen in the US in recent memory. I specifically asked Dr. Searles to include any links to flood assistance efforts that she thought were especially noteworthy, knowing that we have a readership who have suffered from floods and some who have family connections in the Baton Rouge area. You’ll find these links at the end of the post. Please feel free to share them. 

Last week Louisiana experienced what some are calling a 1,000-year flood event and the worst U.S. disaster since Superstorm Sandy, due to a slow-moving low-pressure weather system that dumped more than 31 inches from August 11th to the 13th. To put that in perspective, since 2012 the entire Los Angeles area has had approximately 29 inches of rain. More than 30,000 people were rescued from their homes, 13 found dead, and at the peak of the crisis more than 11,000 people were housed in shelters. It is estimated that 60,000 homes have been damaged by flooding, and nearly 102,000 people have registered for federal assistance.

To exacerbate recovery efforts, only 12 percent of homeowners have flood insurance as most homes were in low-to-moderate flood risk areas (to compare, about 40% of homeowners in New Orleans have flood insurance). In Livingston parish, more than 75% of homes are described as a total loss. Of the 64 parishes in Louisiana, Governor Edwards expects 30 to be declared national disasters.

It was the biggest flood you never heard about.

Governor Edwards declared a state of emergency Friday, August 12, but if you watched television news over the weekend you were unlikely to hear anything but the latest Olympic medal counts and election news. On August 15th, several days after the start of the event, some print news coverage emerged. However, despite the mea culpa from the New York Times public editor, coverage remained buried on the third or fourth page. Meanwhile, on television news, the criminal antics of Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte received non-stop coverage as reporters attempted to interpret the swimmer’s intentions in great detail. For example, cable news network CNN — known for their 24-hour coverage of such events (e.g. the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 complete with holographic rendering and submarine exploration) — did not mention the floods until Sunday, and coverage was perfunctory. To be sure, television broadcasts were far from the wall-to-wall coverage we are accustomed to seeing during natural disasters. This dearth in coverage is stark given natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina have been found to receive 3x’s as much attention as other news events.

The failure to cover such a natural disaster has repercussions. National attention not only motivates private donations, but federal assistance as well. The media signals an event is worthy of policy-makers time; without it disasters are unlikely to make the national agenda.

What happened?

News media act as “gatekeepers” when they decide what to cover and what to leave off air. To guide these editorial decisions these gatekeepers use news values, or yardsticks of newsworthiness, such as conflict, novelty, timeliness, human interest, and proximity. Drawing on these news values and related research in political communication, I set forth 7 reasons why the Louisiana floods receive little national news attention.

  • The storm was not named. Others have pointed this out: The National Hurricane Center names tropical storms and hurricanes and assigns categories to designate potential impact. Storms that begin inland, like what Louisiana experienced, do not receive a name.   A name signals to the media that a storm is serious, which sets of an alarm among media outlets. To add to this, news coverage begets more news coverage, with smaller outlets often following legacy outlets and other first movers. This constant, similar coverage across outlets is often equated to a feeding frenzy. No name for the Louisiana weather event meant no alarm was sounded, and little to no coverage resulted.
  • The storm was hard to define. NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center called it an, “inland sheared tropical depression” – do you know what that is? Neither do I, and likely, neither do most reporters. The rainfall that resulted from this weather event was similar to a slow-moving tropical depression, but since the storm didn’t originate over subtropical waters and surface winds were not circulating around a center, it was hard even for weather experts to describe the event. Issues characterized by complexity or uncertainty require more research time for already time-crunched reporters, and more effort is required to parse the subject-matter for news audiences. As a result, reporters are less likely to report on such issues.
  • The events were non-linear. Heavy rain began on Thursday, August 11 and continued through Monday, August 15. As the rain abated, water began backing up into tributaries and rivers, in what is referred to as backwater flooding. As homeowners in East Baton Rouge returned to damaged properties, homeowers along the Amite River were preparing for rising floodwaters. News coverage is facilitated by stories with clear narrative structures and a conclusion. The weather even in Louisiana was anything but linear, and flooding persists, making it difficult to cover.
  • The events happened on a weekend during August. Institutional routines affect coverage, too. It is easier to ignore events over the weekend, when much of the Louisiana flood occurred.   News outlets – already operating at diminished capacity as the news industry faces economic pressure – are staffed primarily Monday through Friday. Moreover, many outlets are operating with reduced crews due to summer vacations, and weather events require editors to pull reporters off other beats. For all of these reasons, editors were less likely to make the decision to send crews to Louisiana Friday afternoon.
  • Louisiana isn’t like most statesSocial science research suggests people are less likely to award social assistance to those they perceive as undeserving. Such judgments are entangled with racial attitudes: Media depictions of social assistance often reinforce who the public perceives as undeserving by using images of African Americans in stories on abuse, and using images of white Americans in stories on the working poor.   Louisiana has the second highest African American population of all 50 states and is among the poorest. On top of that, many homeowners did not have flood insurance. These characteristics may contribute to the perception of reporters and audience members that the flood victims were undeserving of national attention and public support.
  • The Olympics. In a study including 5,000 international natural disasters from 1968-2002, researchers found that, because of lacking national news attention, U.S. policy makers were less likely to declare disasters during the Olympics. Moreover, they find that the effect of this non-attention significantly affected aid.
  • Baton Rouge is not New Orleans, and this was not Hurricane Katrina. Audience interest in the location of a natural disaster plays into editors’ news value judgments. Despite being the capital of Louisiana, Baton Rouge inspires less national interest than its storied neighbor, New Orleans, making the Louisiana flood a less compelling story to editors. Moreover, research suggests media are mostly concerned with information about who responded to the disaster and how. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, much of media attention focused on the Bush administration’s mismanagement. As recovery efforts continued, media narratives shifted to civil unrest, depicting New Orleans as a war zone. The details regarding community and government response to the flooding in Louisiana were, by early accounts, effective. Unfortunately, effective response and communities coming together makes for a less exciting news story.

While news values, and journalistic norms and routines may help us to understand why the Louisiana floods received little national media attention, in today’s media environment news consumers have access to information outside mainstream news outlets via social media or alternative news sites, like this one. Fortunately, as alternative routes to news proliferate on the internet, our generosity need not be constrained to what the national news media deem newsworthy.

If you can help, please consider donating to one of the following local organizations, actively coordinating efforts on the ground in southern Louisiana:

Kathleen Searles is an Assistant Professor of Political Communication in Political Science and Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.