It's more important than ever that news stories about disasters in the time of a pandemic frame the impacts of environmental phenomena in meaningful ways.

The combined effects of the global pandemic and disasters caused by natural hazards mean that it is critical for citizens and those in power to understand compounding factors when two forms of crises collide to impact communities. Factual and contextualized reporting also is a powerful tool in addressing disaster fatigue and the politicization of science. Such reporting advances careful and thoughtful responses to crises rather than rash reporting based in hysteria or sensationalism.

The global pandemic dominated the news of 2020 in the United States. Buried among this year's headlines is the fact that 2020 was a record-setting year for disasters caused by natural hazards. The 2020 Atlantic storm season is one of the busiest on record. And by October 2020, California's wildfires alone had burned a record-setting 4 million-plus acres, while 12 other states were also impacted. These are no longer rare occurrences of Mother Nature that will not be seen for generations to come. In fact, the last record set for wildfires in the United States was only 2018, with 1.7 million acres destroyed.

Disaster coverage in recent months carried details that were misreported and misrepresented. Coverage included exaggerated or sensationalized stories of looting, which can turn needed attention away from emergency relief and response and toward calls for vigilante behavior or martial law.

The impact of news coverage that perpetuates mayhem during and in the aftermath of disasters has been linked to law enforcement shootings of storm victims and the blaming of wildfires on homeless populations and their encampments on the West Coast.

Misreporting and misrepresentations also muddle the ways in which disasters lay open inequities in communities. Television images of burning celebrity mansions do not convey to audiences that wealthy citizens are able to recover from devastating loss far more quickly than the average resident. Images of storms do not provide context that lower-income and minority neighborhoods are often more exposed and more vulnerable to severe wind and water damage because these communities lack resources and have been subject to historical and ongoing neglect.

Disaster news tropes may capture audiences' attention to news sites, feeds, and networks, but they ultimately frustrate progress in mitigating the short-term and long-term effects of disasters on communities.

Journalism can aid communities through ethical coverage of disasters through five key pillars.

  1. Explain the Causes
  2. Identify the Affected Populations
  3. Stop Perpetuating Myths and Tropes
  4. Stick Around
  5. Stop Calling Them Natural Disasters

Read the full article about disaster reporting by Aaron Clark-Ginsberg and Shearon Roberts at RAND Corporation.