Tuesday September 6, 2005

The Media Ethics of Katrina Coverage

Is the media turning hurricane Katrina into a crime story? A law and communications professor says coverage has been harmful.

What started out as coverage of a horrific natural disaster has turned into a national crime story, according to a law and communications professor at the University of Dayton.

Dennis Greene said the television and print images of the disaster, in particular those coming out of New Orleans, may polarize the rest of the country and deter people from helping.

"The media is obsessed with people looting and stealing TVs, and the fact is that's just a part of what's going on," Greene said. "You have a large mass of people in a desperate, isolated situation being told to congregate in one place where nothing is being delivered to them and the majority of people going into the stores are taking water and absolute necessities. When you focus on the 'sensational' aspects of a few, what's the objective?

"The media has already defined the area as a war zone of 'refugees' instead of evacuees. This kind of coverage gets us as a nation to disassociate ourselves from thinking of these people as Americans and dehumanizes what truly is an American tragedy."

Greene contends that the disproportionate amount of attention on the negativity and chaos hurts the national consciousness and Americans' ability to identify with the terrible conditions people are suffering.

"When you see images of the National Guard carrying rifles into the crowds instead of bottles of water, it turns the disaster into an armed camp," Greene said. "What is the real purpose of focusing on the protection of material goods that are covered by insurance and will be damaged by the salt water and sewage surrounding them, when the real issue is that people are dying and the elderly and children need food, water and medication?"

Greene said minimal attention has been given to other issues, such as government aid, reallocation of military dollars and the physical structure of a city sitting under sea level that was never prepared to function above a level three hurricane.

"When you have a story this complex and catastrophic, the media has the opportunity to target and identify information that can assist in recovery and relief," Greene said. "Focusing on the 'great black terror' roaming the streets does not help motivate more effective involvement. Playing upon stereotypes is very dangerous because it may hinder having more lives saved.

"When the media plays a part by exacerbating urban anxiety and fear, it may not be a conscious effort, but shows their own alienation and codes the person watching and reading this to say, 'Look what those people are doing to themselves,' " Greene said.

"This is one of the oldest cities in the U.S., but we're treating it like a foreign country," Greene said. "It's not a time for polarization, but a time to come together, and the media can play a pivotal role in that."

To interview Dennis Greene, contact (937) 229-2362 (office) or (614) 353-9579 (cell).