The aftermath of a hurricane. ©Canva.com

Despite Trump, Overwhelming Public Support for Media Coverage of Natural Disasters

Cornell University
Oct 18, 2018 · 4 min read

By Peter K. Enns and Jonathon P. Schuldt

This week, officials raised the death toll from Hurricane Michael to 29, adding to the nearly 50 killed during Hurricane Florence in September. Yet, as Florence was poised to deliver catastrophic flooding to the Carolinas, President Trump extended his criticism of the news media to coverage of natural disasters, falsely claiming that 3,000 people did not die in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. His timing couldn’t have been worse. Against a backdrop of steadily declining trust in the media, commentators lamented that Trump’s criticism would only further erode public trust in times of crisis. Although declining trust in the media is certainly a cause for concern, our new poll finds that when asked about key functions of the media — and coverage of natural disasters, specifically — the public expresses strong support for news media. Yes, even most Trump supporters.

To investigate how the public thinks about news media’s role in times of crisis, we asked a national sample of 1,046 likely voters, “From time to time, humanitarian crises like famines or natural disasters occur. In your opinion, how important is it for news media to cover to these events?” Response options included “not at all important,” “not too important,” “somewhat important,” “very important,” and “extremely important.” Given that 26 percent of the public recently indicated that “news media is the enemy of the people” and that 33 percent of young Americans report they never trust the media, we expected a sizable portion of our likely voters would select “not at all” or “not too important.”

Figure: Percent indicating that it is important for news media to cover events like humanitarian crises or natural disasters among likely Voters (top bar) and likely voters who approve of Trump (middle bar) and who disapprove of Trump (bottom bar). Note: The thin vertical gray bars on the left correspond with respondents who thought this news media coverage was not at all important or not too important. Data from Enns and Schuldt 2018 Midterm Survey, Wave 2.

This was not the case. Less than 5 percent selected these categories. Fully 73 percent indicated “very important” or “extremely important” and 22 percent indicated “somewhat important”. Notably, we fielded our survey between August 27 and September 6, and nearly 90 percent of our interviews were complete before Florence attained hurricane status. These results suggest that concerns about collapsing trust in the media miss an important part of the story. At least for some types of news coverage, the value of news media is loud and clear.

But this doesn’t mean Trump is having no effect. In fact, many people have expressed concern that the president’s “enemy of the people” rhetoric is turning his base against the media. To dig deeper, we examined whether responses to the above question differed among those who approve and disapprove of Trump. Even when asked about news coverage of humanitarian crises and natural disasters, we find evidence consistent with a Trump effect. Specifically, 84 percent of those disapproving of Trump felt that such news was “very” or “extremely” important, compared to 57 percent of those approving of Trump. Just as remarkable, while just 1 percent of those who disapprove of Trump said that news coverage of humanitarian crises and natural disasters is “not at all” or “not too” important, 10 percent of Trump supporters expressed this sentiment.

To be sure, we cannot be certain that Donald Trump’s attacks on the media have caused this difference. But we can say that these differences persist even when statistically controlling for likely voters’ partisanship and their political ideology, indicating that presidential approval is a unique predictor of lower support for this type of news coverage.

Although declining trust in the media is certainly a cause for concern, our new poll finds that when asked about key functions of the media — and coverage of natural disasters, specifically — the public expresses strong support for news media.

These results hold important implications for the discourse surrounding “fake news” and the impact of the president’s repeated attacks on the media. For one, our findings show that even prior to Hurricane Florence, 95 percent of likely voters indicated that news coverage of humanitarian crises and natural disasters was at least somewhat important. Granted, this may be an easy case for acknowledging media’s importance. Yet, if substantial segments of likely voters truly believed that the news media are the “enemy of the people,” our data would not show such overwhelming support for such news coverage — of any kind. At the same time, our data reveal that politics matters even when it comes to news about a topic as seemingly apolitical as natural disasters.

Although we all depend on accurate reporting as disasters unfold, not everyone recognizes the importance of this information equally.

Data from Enns and Schuldt 2018 Midterm Election Study, Wave 2. Funded by Cornell’s Center for the Study of Inequality. The nationally representative survey of likely voters (N=1,046) was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago

About the authors:

Peter K. Enns (@Pete_Enns) is associate professor of government and executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.

Jonathon P. Schuldt (@JonathonSchuldt) is associate professor of communication and a faculty affiliate at the Roper Center at Cornell University.

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