Mother Nature Makes News

  • October 08, 2009
  • By Tricia Sartor, Dana Page, and Project for Excellence in Journalism

A trio of natural disasters in the Pacific Ocean made major news the week of Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2009. On Sept. 29, a massive tsunami struck the Samoa Islands and reportedly killed more than 175 people, with that story filling 4.2% of the newshole. One day later, an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia killed an estimated 1,100 people, accounting for 4.1% of the week's coverage. Earlier in the week, a typhoon in the Philippines (0.9% of the newshole) led to the country's worst flooding in more than 40 years, with more than 450 people reportedly lost.

Combined, the three tragedies accounted for 9.2% of the newshole from Sept. 28-Oct. 4 -- making it the second-biggest week of natural disaster coverage in 2009. These stories generated more coverage (15.4% of the airtime studied) on the network newscasts than in any other media sector, a finding that confirms the networks' general tendency, as measured by PEJ's News Coverage Index, to devote significant coverage to natural disasters.

The year's single biggest week of natural disaster coverage was Aug. 31-Sept. 6. Coverage of wildfires burning near Los Angeles, which destroyed hundreds of homes and killed two firefighters, filled 9.6% of the newshole that week. Combined with coverage of Hurricane Jimena (1.0%), which struck Mexico but caused little damage, natural disasters filled 10.6% of the newshole that week.

Read the full analysis Mother Nature Makes News on the Pew Research Center's Web site.