When media knowingly and willfully misreport data stories in service of a narrative, as with the Harvard study on deaths related to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, they contribute to the ongoing effort to commodify grief for political gain.
Watch as both Univision and Telemundo cite the Harvard figure of 4,645 deaths as a hard number, and not an average estimate:
JORGE RAMOS, UNIVISION ANCHOR: We begin our program with the tragedy in Puerto Rico. Remember when the government used to say that only 64 people had died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria? Well, that seems to have been false. A new study from Harvard University indicates that the true death toll was 4,645. How can such a difference be possible? Who got it wrong? Who hid the true death toll?
JULIO VAQUEIRO, TELEMUNDO ANCHOR: At a vigil in front of the Capitol, located in the island’s capital (San Juan), relatives of the deceased demanded that the government tell them the truth. The (Rosselló) Administration reported that 64 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria. However, a recent study from Harvard University calculated the toll to be 4,645.
Lazy and reckless reporting gives way to aggrieved ccommunities. While no one disputes that the casualty figure of 64 was impossbly implausible given the extent of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, it is also true that 4,645 was never intended to be a hard number, but rather an estimate based on data gleaned from a household study. In fact, the Washington Post went through the trouble of publishing an article explaining how the data worked, subtly titled, "Did exactly 4,645 people die in Hurricane Maria? Nope."
As Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler clearly writes [our emphasis]:
This is not a verified number, unlike body counts in wars. The Harvard study offers only an estimate – a midpoint along a broad range of possibilities. It is not based on death records, only estimates of deaths from people who were interviewed in a survey.
In effect, the researchers took one number – 15 deaths identified from a survey of 3,299 households – and extrapolated that to come up with 4,645 deaths across the island. That number came with a very large caveat, clearly identified in the report, but few news media accounts bothered to explain the nuances.
Sadly, neither did Univision or Telemundo. But who cares for nuance when there are hurricane evacuees in Florida that need to be ginned up into registering to vote in the midterms?