Report: Framing Race and Class in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

The Equal Justice Society today issued a report, “Framing Race and Class in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina: A Natural and Unnatural Disaster,” an examination of coverage by different kinds of media of this unique natural and unnatural disaster in an effort to understand how the story of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath were being presented to American audiences.

The issues of race, class and government action brought so forcefully into focus in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina provided a unique framework with which to analyze media coverage of these fundamental issues. The report is part of EJS’s long term effort to “put race back on the table” and reframe the public conversation about race and government accountability.

The study was conducted by Shannon Seibert, a graduate of USC Law School (who also has an MA in Journalism) who worked with EJS on an Irmas Fellowship, and managed by media relations consultant Elaine Elinson. It includes three aspects: a detailed media scan of rightwing newspapers; a synthesis of several studies of mainstream media; and an examination of the efforts by progressive organizations to project their messages into the media.

Download the report

The media scan of conservative papers — the New York Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal and the Orange County Register from September 2005 to January 2006 — reveals the systematic messaging and tactics of the Right. Here we examine how the conservative press distorts the issues of race, racism, and the role of government in addressing the disaster.

The review of the mainstream media – The New York Times, Washington Post, primetime network news, etc. – reveals moments of stellar in-depth reporting, coupled with a waning of interest and coverage in an unconscionably short period of time. The efforts by progressive social justice organizations to help frame the public conversation were rapid, thoughtful and politically sophisticated, yet lacked the necessary resources and coordination to sustain a long-term effort.

There is no doubt that future American disasters will disproportionately impact people of color and the poor in this country. It is vital that we understand the stance and role of various kinds of media and the impact that their messages have on public opinion and public policy. It is equally vital that we develop the resources, tools and skills to be able to deepen the public discourse around the pivotal issues of race, racism and government accountability.

Two years after the nation’s witnessing of the devastation in New Orleans, it has become a matter of common knowledge that Hurricane Katrina ripped the veil off America’s often hidden visage of race and poverty. No amount of “spin” in the first days after Hurricane Katrina could dispute the reality of hours stretching into days while tens of thousands of people remained stranded on rooftops and overpasses in smoldering heat without food, water, or medicine. Neither could be disguised the federal government’s apathetic approach to rescuing the tens of thousands left behind, nearly all of whom were African American.

With the horrific images came an awakening of interest of a long-slumbering public in the fate of their fellow Americans. Widely heard throughout the media in those early days and weeks was the common refrain “the story of Hurricane Katrina has changed the way Americans view poverty.”

For their part, journalists and pundits — those who determine what will be communicated as news to the American public — agreed that the story of the hurricane’s aftermath, the government’s inadequate preparation and response, and the reality of poverty and racism in America was one that would last long beyond the typical “shelf life” of a news story.

At the same time, activists on the ground in the South and across the nation mobilized incredible resources and dedicated vast amounts of time and energy to assist evacuees with immediate needs of food, clothing, and housing and organized politically to keep the aftermath of Katrina at the forefront of national consciousness.

Yet, two years later, despite the lack of electricity, water and other public services in parts of the Ninth Ward, mayoral elections in which more than half the evacuated city was provided no feasible way in which to participate, and one-third of the city’s population still unable to return home, coverage of Gulf area victims in the media has largely evaporated, and American interest has markedly waned. As noted by Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz, “Most of those left behind in the storm were poor and black…and it seemed, briefly, that we were on the verge of a national conversation about race and poverty. But it never materialized.”

What happened? How did the largest natural and manmade disaster ever experienced in this country fade so rapidly into the background, its victims all but forgotten? Why did journalists, once visibly shaken at the images pouring through our screens, suddenly lose interest in a story with such wide-reaching implications? What must progressives do to encourage media interest and accurate reporting on issues of the realities of racism and poverty in America?

In this era of the 24-hour news cycle, the media largely dictate not only what issues Americans discuss over coffee, but also how they think about and discuss those issues. Quite obviously, if something is not reported upon, then the public will not know to talk about it, absent information from “alternative” sources. But just as importantly, the way in which media present the images and events, the context, understanding, history they provide to explain the images and events, and the language they use to provide those explanations influence even the most highly sophisticated news consumer.

Progressive organizations and foundations have only recently come to realize the important role communications plays in achieving the goals of the progressive community. Foundations such as the Open Society Institute and Ford Foundation are increasingly funding communications departments within activist organizations.

Academics such as George Lakoff have gained fame offering “framing” as the answer to progressives’ ills. While questions remain in the framing discussion – to what extent framing our message should be focused upon and how our message should be framed – it is indisputable that progressives must develop our communications capacities, strategies, and knowledge to enhance our ability to be effective advocates.

The issues of race, class, and government action brought so forcefully into focus in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina provided a unique framework in which to analyze media coverage of those issues. By looking at the opposing sides of the communications battle – the Right’s strategies and the Left’s ability to transmit our messages through the media – we hope to offer insight into how best to neutralize the Right’s messaging while developing an understanding of progressive messaging efforts so that we may continue to improve our communications strategies.

Part One of the report focuses upon the conservative media’s efforts to spin, ignore, or distract from the issues of race, class and governmental duty unveiled by Hurricane Katrina. Part Two focuses on specific opportunities for framing and messaging presented to progressives by Hurricane Katrina and the extent to which the progressive community took advantage of those opportunities. To the extent Part Two of the report, which is based upon several organizations’ recommendations and analyses, illuminates missed opportunities for the progressive community, the information is provided in the spirit of recognizing our shortcomings so that we may better prepare for the future.

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