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On Katrina’s anniversary, compare corporate v. indy media coverage

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

August 28th, 2006

OK, so it’s been a year since Katrina, and what have we learned about the priorities of independent verses corporate media?

In the very first days after Hurricane Katrina struck, while news media were still warning about African Americans “looting” groceries in New Orleans yet finding compassion for white New Orleans residents who had to “find” food wherever they could, and while reporters and pundits alike insisted on referring to Katrina’s mostly poor, mostly Black victims as “refugees” rather than displaced and abandoned American citizens, WIMN helped ABC News Now book ColorLines magazine’s Rinku Sen (also a WIMN’s Voices blogger) on their cable show “Top Priority,” for what was at the time one of the very first TV news discussions of the impact of race, class and gender in the wake of the natural disaster, the recover and relief efforts, and the unnatural political aftermath.

On Sept. 6, 2005, in “Another Case of Government for Some,” The Praxis Project’s Makani Themba Nixon (also a WIMN’s Voices blogger) broke down the disaster this way:

There has been a lot of discussion on the internet about the uneven, racist news coverage. The now famous Yahoo News story in which black people were described as looters and whites as “finding” food has found its way to mainstream media. Reporters want to know, “How could this happen?”

We know how. It happens everyday. Yet, this may be but a distraction from the more fundamental bias in the coverage and even more importantly, the bias in public policy…

…Even in the face of thousands dead, Louisiana’s governor has New Orleans mostly fending for itself. Local black residents report that many mainstream relief efforts are bypassing their neighborhoods and reporters are looking for “more sympathetic” victims (read white). Even celebrity coverage was skewed. Green Bay Packer and Kiln, Miss. native Brett Favre had cameras following him, while black future Hall of Famers, who also sustained serious losses, like Marshall Faulk, were mostly ignored.

Media coverage matters. Its relationship to public policy, and ultimately how the two shape our reality, is complex. The inhumane stereotypes and negative imagery help steer the public toward inhumane policies and savage behavior. A black man in a vestibule raises a wallet that morphs into a gun in the eyes of a cop. A mother looking for food becomes a drug-crazed criminal down the nose of a rifle. Seconds later, a loved one is gone.

In the months and year that passed, the Katrina Information Network formed to seek “Real Relief. A Just Recovery. And Nothing Less,” as their website demands, complete with resources to help journalists keep the spotlight shining on all the stories that needed continued attention (from FEMA failures to housing discrimination to corporate profiteering to racist redistricting and on and on). Organizations sprang up such as Justice For New Orleans, with sections offering independent articles and information , while independent magazines such as ColorLines devoted themselves to critical, in-depth investigation and insightful, provocative commentary about Katrina and Rita’s impact on Gulf Coast’s people, communities and environment, the political meaning imbedded of the government’s inept response, and the long fight ahead.

All the while, independent journalists and women’s social justice advocates alike have gone to great lengths to include gender as a frame for discussing, reporting, researching [PDF] and responding to [PDF] Katrina’s continued legacy. (For more information on women’s post-Katrina activism, and for resources for journalists interested in covering these stories, see the Ms. Foundation for Women’s Katrina Anniversary Resources site.)

Yet today, here is what AOL considered the most important question to pose in a poll plugged by a link displayed in the news window all AOL users saw when they signed on today: a photograph of the profile of George W. Bush looking out of an airplane window, alongside a headline asking, “Will He Recover From Katrina? Slow Response Hurt His Image. Rate Your Confidence in Bush.” Clicking on that link brings you to a page where you can click four different handy-dandy buttons to register your opinion as to whether you consider Bush “very,” “somewhat” or “not at all” compassionate, and other questions important only to Beltway boys.

Let’s recap, shall we?

  • Independent media, academic researchers, individual activists and community organizers have spent a year investigating the deaths, homelessness and basic destruction of so many people’s lives — especially those who were low income and of color — that Katrina wrought, and the successes, challenges and failures of the recovery effort;
  • Corporate media are wondering how this all may be affecting the President’s image.

As we hit the one year anniversary of one of the largest, most devastating natural disasters America has ever seen, the question ethical media should be asking is: how will the people of the Gulf Coast recover?

And if that question is not juicy enough for them, reporters might consider investigating another, deeper question: what is America doing to repair the ingrained, institutional racism, unconscionable acceptance of widespread poverty, and the disproportionate ways both racial and economic discrimination impact women that allowed Katrina’s impact to be so severe in the first place?

Please forward this post widely, blog about the AOL poll v. the independent media’s investigations, and encourage your local and national media outlets to keep their focus on how the people, communities and environment of the Gulf Coast are recovering from Katrina — not on the political football of how the hurricane may have hurt the administration’s image.

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