Hurricane Katrina caught us at our best. And she caught us at our worst. Journalists stuck with the story with courage and commitment. They dealt with immense time pressures, physical deprivation and exhaustion. And just like others across America, journalists couldn’t help but be affected. They were stunned by the huge number of people who couldn’t get out — not just from the city of New Orleans, but from a life of deep poverty and struggle.
There’s been much discussion about whether this will lead to more reporting about poverty in the United States, to more reporting about the links between race and family wealth. The aftermath of Katrina could create an opening to cover some of the deepest issues in America today.
It also could become an opening to think about how journalists cover race, and how deeply the news media influences society’s perceptions of race. The images of Hurricane Katrina will stick with all of us for a long time.
We saw desperate Americans, dying on the street waiting for help. We saw angry people, and people cramped together in squalid, miserable conditions. And because they were the ones who lived in the most vulnerable part of the city and the ones least likely to be able to get out, we saw poor people. And almost all of those poor people were black.
In a nation where the news media is struggling to do a better job to include all of America in its coverage, what effects does this have? In the days following Katrina, people saw more black faces on television than they had in more than a decade, when the Los Angeles riots erupted in 1992 after the Rodney King verdict. The effects, whether intended or not, will be deep.
“I might consciously feel sympathy,” says Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, but she adds, the unconscious lessons will be different. In study after study, Banaji has shown that we all develop unconscious expectations and stereotypes of one another. Both our own experiences — or lack of experience — and the culture around us help shape these beliefs. While we may honestly believe we don’t have a bias against another race, we often act on assumptions hidden deep beneath our awareness.
For journalists, that means us — times two. We are affected by our unconscious biases, and we help create them for others. Katrina coverage emphasized African-Americans who were unable to get out from in front of danger, and then suffered deeply as a result. We heard about looting, shooting, rapes. When bombarded continuously with these images and ideas, the unconscious mind can’t help but create some links, Banaji says: “Black: poor; black: not smart; black: sad; and black: bad.”
Does that mean we should cover up what we see? Should we protect the public from dangerous ways of thinking that could harm society in the long term?
Of course not. We’re not in the business of social engineering. But we can work harder to counterbalance the stories and imagery that, taken together, we know will sew inaccurate “truths” in people’s minds.
Where were the middle-class black people who had lived in New Orleans? Where were the middle-class white people? Could newsrooms have done a better job showing strong, smart, good black people contending with disaster?
We also can remember the unconscious stereotypes we naturally hold in our own minds. Are we really seeing everything that is there?
During a Sept. 22 seminar conducted by the USC-Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism, Bryan Monroe, vice president of news for Knight Ridder, described the stories of heroism he saw in the Gulf. Instead of “looting,” he found what he called “anti-looting.”
In Biloxi, Miss., for instance, Arnold Blackstone “rescued” 30 pounds of meat in a partially gutted store, cooked it up on a makeshift barbecue, and fed everyone. By the time he finished, there was nothing left for him. Monroe and his colleagues discovered people like Blackstone by seeing things others might not have — by going into areas of the Gulf where white reporters may have been afraid to venture, he said.
That doesn’t mean white reporters can’t ever venture there. Nor that black reporters are free from the unconscious stereotypes we all share. Fortunately, Banaji’s research also has identified some very straightforward ways to undo our natural tendencies. The easiest, simplest way to overcome unconscious fear and bias may even seem obvious: to spend time with people different from ourselves, she says. And then, when the hurricane comes, maybe we’ll be able to see more than just one part of the story.
Sally Lehrman is a member of the SPJ board of directors and national diversity chairwoman.