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Hurricanes and the Media

Comments  /  Megan Olson

Well before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on August 25th, the media was bracing for a storm of its own. Local and National news increased coverage, sending reporters to the field for rainy eyewitness accounts of the largest hurricane to threaten the Gulf Coast in decades. And, as the devastating effects of the storm came to light over the next few days, the media became even more involved – in ways many of us could not have imagined.


Increased News Coverage

Harvey’s news frenzy spanned both local and national broadcasts. From Friday 8/25 through Tuesday 8/29, KTRK-TV, the ABC affiliate in Houston, recorded 117 hours of coverage during and after Hurricane Harvey. Many saw the YouTube video of KHOU-TV’s studio, which started to flood early Sunday morning, and forced employees to evacuate. The station stopped broadcasting Sunday and with the help of Dallas sister station, WFAA, was back on the air Monday.


Friday night, ABC aired a special broadcast of World News Tonight with a live special edition of Nightline afterward. CBS Evening News featured reporters in the field and promoted CBS This Morning: Saturday for continued coverage. NBC News’ special reports aired Friday night and throughout the weekend with Today, Nightly News and Meet the Press with Chuck Todd. MSNBC had live coverage with meteorologist Bill Karins and go-to NBC reporters, from Kerry Sanders to Gabe Gutierrez.


The Cable networks had 24/7 coverage of the hurricane prior to making landfall and even after Harvey moved out of the region. CNN and Fox News had anchors and meteorologists providing round-the-clock updates. The Weather Channel sent 70 reporters & producers out in the field with more than 188 consecutive live hours, covering Harvey and its aftermath. Several station representatives and members of the media even assisted in rescue efforts.


The Effect on Ratings

National TV ratings spiked during the storm as viewers around the country tuned in for Harvey coverage. The Weather Channel had the highest rated program on 8/25 (A18-49), with its 10P time slot reaching 2,267,000 viewers; the 11P show reached 2,055,000 viewers.


Nielsen issued a statement on Tues. 8/29 about the possible impact of Harvey on the September PPM survey. Between power outages, service disruption due to evacuations and home abandonment, and a lack of survey participants during this time, it is understandable that ratings would be disrupted.


Meanwhile, comScore, which utilizes consumer data collected across various in-home connected devices, was able to provide reporting in Houston during this time. They reported a total-day average audience estimate for the four major local networks of more than 537,000 HH’s during Hurricane Harvey, which is 140% higher than the previous week.


Power of Social Media

Social Media’s power was on display during Harvey. After days of witnessing reporters fighting wind, rain and flood water just to cover the story, many viewers took to social media to share their views, many of which were critical of the networks. The issue of placing reporters in harm’s way for the sake of broadcast viewership came to the forefront during this storm.


At the same time, residents who could not connect with 911 operators around Houston, turned to social media for help. With more than 56,000 911 calls in 15 hours, their only option was to post calls for help on Facebook and Twitter. Hashtags such as #sosHarvey and #helphouston were used to track cries for help and gather volunteers for rescue operations. The Twitter handle, @HarveyRescue helped officials to compile databases of addresses and names of people in need.


Although it’s difficult to calculate the number of lives saved by social media, there was one poignant example. During Harvey, an image of a flooded nursing home in Dickinson, TX showed elderly residents in chest-high flood waters, which quickly went viral. The Tweet was shared over 4,800 times and helped push the nursing home to the top of the rescuers’ priority list. Capitalizing on the ability to reach residents through this platform, the Harris County Sherriff’s Dept. in Houston used Twitter to update citizens about threats and water conditions, using Twitter as an awareness tool. Even Facebook stepped up, activating a safety check to allow users to mark that they were safe and ask for help or offer services.


Relief Efforts

As donations came in from companies and organizations throughout the US, some major media outlets also participated in fundraising efforts. Hearst TV Stations raised a total of $4.1M from viewers, despite the fact that they don’t have any stations in Texas. Tegna’s 46 stations also helped raise money, creating the Texas Cares initiative, which donated more than $1.15M to the Red Cross Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. The Tribune Media Company pledge $100K to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund and Tribune Broadcasting’s TV stations raised nearly $400K for the Red Cross, Salvation Army and local Houston Charities.


Local Texas media also played a major role in fundraising efforts. Disney-owned KTRK committed $1M cash to the American Red Cross to support Harvey efforts. And, Disney also agreed to match eligible Disney employee donations to the American Red Cross. In addition, 25 radio stations in Houston simultaneously aired a fundraiser from Fri. September 8th through Sun. September 10th to support the Houston Food Bank.


No one could have predicted the amount of damage Hurricane Harvey produced. Nor could we foresee how Houston and its extended community would come together to help those affected by the storm. The Media was there too, covering the event, but also lending a hand and playing an important role throughout. From keeping the country informed to helping residents communicate with officials and assisting with rescue efforts, the Media became an unlikely aide in the face of disaster.