Hurricane Katrina blew its destructive force ashore in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Now, in its aftermath, journalists who are rarely exposed to either the breadth and depth of poverty or the extent of devastation that these winds caused and revealed struggle to understand and find ways to convey what it is they witness. At a time like this, important questions should surface about whether this catastrophe will affect the topics that journalists decide to cover and how they practice their craft. A few of these include:
When journalists report on an America that is different and poorer from their own, how does their privileged prism color the story? What can they do to ensure fair and accurate reporting?
Big stories—the Iraq prison torture scandal is one example—often fade as a result of breaking news, as well as public and press fatigue. How do journalists report the complicated aftermath of Katrina—which involves everything from wetlands protection to the role and effectiveness of the government in disaster relief—and keep themselves and the public interested?
As a result of what Katrina revealed, will news organizations commit to more projects on class, poverty and race in America?
I was riveted as television and newspapers recorded the escalating disaster of Hurricane Katrina. I was stunned as the storm’s aftermath grew more disastrous.
I am a journalist. I am an American. I am an African American. The people on the rooftops of drowning New Orleans wards and parishes are me and yet they are not. Not many journalists live in such neighborhoods or in the projects or a trailer. Most I know own a car. Their bank accounts might not be fat, but they usually contain more than eight dollars. That might be why one television reporter seemed so shocked when an evacuee gave her bank balance as exactly that. How can someone live like that?
Few journalists truly understand such things.
My parents sold their first car for a down payment on their first and only home, a modest, Baltimore row house. It took them nearly 10 years of saving to afford their next car. I explained to my son that I—the youngest of five children—clearly remember when the family finally bought that Ford Fairlane. You can live a hard-working life without a car—walking and public transportation are two alternatives. But it puts you at a disadvantage when you have to get out of town fast.
For the most part, journalists did a great job telling the story of Katrina, and The Times-Picayune did even better with its years of prescient warnings about what eventually came to pass. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and others have recently reported on class differences in America. Still, when Katrina hit, there was a hint of “Where did all these poor, mostly black people come from?,” and this was not heard just from government officials.
Journalists have already debated, “Are they refugees, evacuees or survivors?” and “What’s the difference between scavenging and looting?.” To that I would add: When is it “us,” and when is it “them”? Let’s talk about this—and these other questions—before we parachute into another story, another disaster.
Every day journalists report on subjects we know little about, from stem cell research to Greco-Roman wrestling. We research, ask questions, get up to speed. Then we can report nuance and discover shades of gray. It can’t be that hard to do the same when the story involves the life circumstances of people. The first step is admitting that you don’t know what you don’t know. Even if it took your dad years to buy a car.
Mary C. Curtis, a 2006 Nieman Fellow, is executive features editor and features columnist at The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. A version of this article appeared first on the Nieman Watchdog Web site at the address www.niemanwatchdog.org.