Climate change leads to more frequent and severe flooding, urging cities to adapt to protect their populations and assets. Despite exacerbated hazards, governments repeatedly draw on ‘tried-and-true’ approaches to protect the status quo, often with serious adverse effects for the poor and vulnerable. Yet, such dominant approaches do not go unchallenged as the media and other actors prompt public debate to assess flood impacts, scrutinise government decisions, and perhaps even promote alternative practices. News outlets are not, however, balanced or value-free; the events portrayed and the voices (and knowledges) recognised and included in media coverage deeply influence whether and how flooding is incorporated in policy. Focusing on São Paulo, Brazil, we examine how the media framed flood events and conveyed solutions during the city's worst floods in recorded history. We demonstrate how competing media outlets largely depicted flooding as a natural phenomenon to be solved by governments and experts through existing techno-managerial practices, mirroring governmental partisan plans for adaptive action. In doing so, the media failed to offer a democratic space for public discussion, citizen contestation, and the advancement of alternative trajectories for adaptation. We posit that inclusive trajectories that address entrenched vulnerabilities and projected climate change will benefit from rigorous ethical debates around the media's role in disaster coverage while strategically leveraging alternative media outlets as public pedagogy and agenda-setting tools.