Accuracy in Media

It’s not over between President Trump and the media over the death toll in Puerto Rico, but there is some evidence the president’s tweets have made the media rethink how it reports on his story.

FEMA director Brock Long made the rounds on Sunday talk shows to discuss the administration’s response to Hurricane Florence.

The Washington Post’s report on Long’s appearances, headlined “FEMA Administrator Brock Long says Puerto Rico hurricane death toll numbers are ‘all over the place,’” displayed this softening twice in the lead paragraph.

“Embattled FEMA Administrator William ‘Brock’ Long said Sunday that the figures for how many people died as a result of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year are ‘all over the place,’ in remarks that echoed Trump’s efforts to cast doubt on a George Washington University study finding there were nearly 3,000 excess deaths on the island in the months after the storm,” the Post wrote.  

But last Thursday, the Post published a story that referred to the “death toll” in Puerto Rico and said, “Trump denied large-scale casualties from the Puerto Rico hurricane.”

Another story that day referred to “the official death count” in the lead paragraph. It later explained that the governor of Puerto Rico had raised the official death toll to 2,975 – the figure reached by the George Washington University study with which Trump took issue.

In a piece in which he argues Trump’s claim will cause future deaths because they will think storms are less severe and not take proper precautions, Aaron Blake of the Fix began “President Trump is a conspiracy theorist. And on Thursday, his conspiracy theory du jour was that Democrats somehow oversold the official death toll in Puerto Rico last year – a toll that a recent study found is near 3,000 – “in order to make me look bad.”

Jennifer Rubin listed “Hurricane death denial” as one of her “Downs” in her daily listing of “Ups and downs.”

But Sunday’s story used weasel words, such as “died as a result of” and “nearly 3,000 excess deaths on the island in the months after the storm.”

“Trump prompted widespread anger last week by dismissing the study’s results, which estimated there were 2,975 more deaths than normal during the six months after Maria, and suggesting the research was manipulated by Democrats to ‘make me look as bad as possible.’”

The White House says the George Washington University study tried to predict how many people would have died over that period had Hurricane Maria not occurred and then compared that to an estimate of deaths that did occur.

It pointed to a series of other studies – from the New York Times, the Center for Investigative Journalism, the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, Penn State and Latino USA – ranged from 600 to 1,200 killed in the storm.

According to the Post, Long, in explaining the president’s point, “suggested researchers took into account deaths due to a range of causes with tenuous links to the storm, such as automobile accidents and domestic violence.”

Long gave other examples – increased heart attacks because of stress, people falling off their house trying to fix the roof or dying in car crashes in intersections where the lights aren’t working. “He contended that the crucial figure is ‘direct deaths – which is the wind, the water and the waves, buildings collapsing.”

The Post then pointed out “The George Washington researchers did not attribute any specific individual’s death to Maria,” and later that “If researchers had attributed every death on the island to the storm, the six-month death toll from the hurricane would have been more than five times as high.”

Trump did not claim the count included every person who died on the island in the ensuing six months. It would be inaccurate to say everyone who died in Puerto Rico in the ensuing six months died as a result of the storm.

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