Media Bias and Hurricane Katrina


 I’ve just finished watching Spike Lee’s documentary. I find myself eagerly sucking in the storm video from Act I. Sometimes my obsession makes me feel a bit deviant–considering all the heartbreaking loss Katrina represented. Though my family lost two cars in hurricanes between 2004 and 2005, we were fortunate to escape actual physical damage to our persons. This is really miraculous considering my brother and I decided to visit Daytona Beach AFTER a mandatory evacuation (hiding from police just to get our storm-on) during one hurricane…and went for a drive during the worst of the weather during another. In other words, we’re idiots.
Every time I watch Lee’s docu, it makes me think of the following story… 
Hurricane Katrina and the “Two-Photo Controversy”

Katrina struck New Orleans, two photographs published by Yahoo! News depicting residents loot_vs_search_2making their way through chest-deep water caused an uproar relating to bias in media coverage. The first image, shot by photographer Dave Martin for the Associated Press, showed a young black man, who, according to the accompanying caption, “walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store.” In a similar shot, taken by photographer Chris Graythen for AFP/Getty Images, a white couple was shown wading “through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store.”

It is Yahoo!’s policy to use photo captions that are provided by the photographers and not edit them before posting the images online.1 These captions caused many to question whether black people were being treated fairly in media coverage of post-hurricane events.

In response to the ensuing controversy, the journalists associated with the photos claimed that it was not an issue of race, but rather a question of semantics over the terms ‘looting’ as opposed to ‘finding’. According to Jack Stokes, the director of media relations for AP, Dave Martin, the photographer of the first picture, personally witnessed the subject of his photograph entering a grocery store and leaving with items, thus witnessing the man looting.2 Whereas the photographer of the second photo, Chris Graythen, didn’t witness the subjects of his photograph taking the goods. “I wrote the caption about the two people who ‘found’ the items. I believed in my opinion, that they did simply find them, and not ‘looted’ them in the definition of the word. The people were swimming in chest deep water, and there were other people in the water, both white and black. I looked for the best picture. There were a million items floating in the water — we were right near a grocery store that had 5+ feet of water in it. It had no doors. The water was moving, and the stuff was floating away. These people were not ducking into a store and busting down windows to get electronics. They picked up bread and cokes that were floating in the water. They would have floated away anyhow.”3


1 Comment

  1. I abhor prejudice but the two photos and the captions were by two different photographers and sources. Sure, it’s possible that the author who used the word “looting” was racist, but who knows? Spike Lee (imho) is a racist as well. I am glad he opens the world’s eyes to racism that is still there, but I’ve also heard him condemn white people as racist just because they are white.

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