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The Media’s Rut

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Panel Discussed How Hurricane Coverage Exposed Flaws In Traditional Journalism

by Simon Hunt

“The media has gotten into a formulaic way of thinking and reporting. It’s a rut, and I don’t know how to get out of that,” Ava Greenwell told a small group at a panel discussion in SAIC’s MacLean Ballroom on November 7. The panel was arranged by Art Munin and Nancy Gildart, co-chairs of the Diversity Program Committee, and met to discuss issues of diversity as they related to the media’s coverage of the effects of Hurricane Katrina. The panel consisted of Sharon Lamb, a PhD student in Disability Studies at the University of Illinois; Marisa Plumb, editor of F Newsmagazine; Greenwell; and Karen Morris, a liberal arts professor at SAIC. It was moderated by the director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, James Britt.

Professor Morris, who teaches African Studies at SAIC, was “struck by the labeling of images [of poverty that came out after the hurricane].” Especially in the case of the broadcast media, reporters described evidence of the displaced poor “as if a third world country had suddenly cropped up in America.” She suggested that if the images had been of poor white people, the comparisons would have been made to the Great Depression. Greenwell, associate professor of Journalism at the Medill School at Northwestern, added that the use of the word “refugee” in describing the hurricane victims was a topic of much discussion in journalist circles, stating that it was “degrading to seem as a refugee in your own country.” She pointed to a moment on live television where Wolf Blitzer, looking at a line of evacuees, emoted, “These people are so poor, so poor, so black, so black.”

The panel discussed the homogenization of news in major outlets like television network news and large newspapers. Morris noted that editors and producers regularly keep track of the stories being reported by their competitors, and that news was something to be marketed. “News managers think that covering certain stories get higher ratings,” he said.

As a representative of small, alternative media, F News editor Marisa Plumb felt that nearly identical news reports from different news venues “allow people to make one safe conclusion” about the issue at hand, and that “diversity of coverage came out in alternative news sources” after Hurricane Katrina.
While the hurricane brought to light instances of extreme poverty, “we didn’t see a lot of images of people with disabilities,” said Lamb. When the hurricane hit, Lamb and others around the country who were concerned about disability issues realized that the flooding and evacuation posed a large problem for those with disabilities. Lamb said, “As a historic city, New Orleans does not have an accessible infrastructure.” Even more distressing, the news media had almost no coverage of disabled evacuees. “We [disabled people] feel very invisible in all this,” said Lamb.

The panel concluded with a short discussion between panelists and members of the audience.

DECEMBER 2005

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