POLITICS
08/28/2015 04:51 pm ET

How Social Media Would Have Changed Hurricane Katrina Coverage

We'd have fewer "looters" and more victims, for one.
John Cancalosi via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The streets of Algiers Point, a mostly white enclave nestled in a predominantly black New Orleans neighborhood, were not safe. White militias blocked off most of the area’s streets, posted signs declaring that they had no issue gunning down looters. Bullets cut through the stale, moist air.

Reginald Bell, a black Algiers resident, stood on a street several blocks from his home, staring down the barrel of a white man’s pump-action shotgun fixed on him from a balcony. Bell was told his kind wasn’t wanted around, according to The New York Times. The following day, the man and an accomplice shoved that shotgun and a long-nose .357 Magnum into the faces of Bell and his girlfriend as they sat on their porch.

“There was no electricity, no police, no nothing,” Bell told the Times in 2010. “We were like sitting ducks. I slept with a butcher knife and a hatchet under my pillow.”

Media coverage of Hurricane Katrina failed Bell and those who looked like him. His story wasn't told until five years later. Black residents, most of them poor, were hit hardest by the 2005 storm, yet only rumors of rape, murder and other atrocious crimes committed by black people -- rather than against them -- made their way into the national narrative. Everything was in disarray. Post-Katrina New Orleans was presented to the rest of the nation as a lawless state made up of dead bodies, dehydrated, half-naked, dirty men and women, screaming children and unforgivable stench.

How would media coverage of Katrina have been different in the age of social media?

The biggest difference would have been more human voices entering the narrative and, possibly, a quicker, more streamlined government response, media observers believe. 

“You’d see a lot more documentation and a much more diverse group of people including residents who were on the ground when it hit,” said Deen Freelon, an assistant professor of communications at American University.

Because residents could have told their own stories (as we saw with the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Hurricane Sandy and the Colorado wildfires), which journalists would have relied on more heavily, it would have provided more nuanced coverage, Freelon said. It wouldn’t have just been journalists telling the story from their perspective.

It's easy to imagine tweets and photos of what was happening to those trapped in their homes rolling down our newsfeeds as the waters rose. It’s equally easy to imagine following a timeline that stops abruptly, never to be refreshed again.  

Such horrific, first-person accounts would have allowed the storm and its aftermath to be seen as more of a human tragedy than a natural disaster, according to Sarah Oates, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. When she reflects on media coverage of Katrina, she remembers seeing more images of a damaged landscape than the faces of the New Orleans residents affected, she told The Huffington Post.

“I remember the news anchors and not the people,” she said. “In today’s news media environment, we see a lot more faces of the people. And I think if you put faces with tragedies, you work harder to avert tragedies in the future. It becomes less abstract and more personal.”

The intensely disconcerting aftermath of Katrina overwhelmed a number of journalists -- and some allowed their emotions to overshadow reporting on the residents' experiences. Often, television stations used aerial shots of New Orleans, because flooding prevented reporters from covering many areas of the city on foot. None of this helped humanize the storm's victims.

Social media would have allowed more information on what was happening inside the Superdome to reach the public and counter the standard "crisis" news coverage, which exaggerated the situation and presented a narrative of poor black people running wild.

“We [became] removed from the crisis and if people would have been able to broadcast video -- in particular from inside the stadium -- it could have had both a calming effect within the stadium itself, made them feel much more empowered in terms of not feeling abandoned and being able to ask for help and the kind of help they needed,” Oates said. It would also have shown "that the people inside the stadium were not some kind of evil people, but just people in a tough and difficult situation," she said.

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“Typically with black people, we have to humanize ourselves,” Freelon said. He pointed out that black residents were portrayed in the media as looters while white residents were said to be just looking for food. Black Americans' "ability to humanize themselves would be increased and, hopefully, the broader media would be able to pick up on that," he added, "in the way that some of them have picked up on the humanizing images that have come out of the Black Lives Matter movement."

Today, news is more likely to circulate through social media networks before being picked up by the national media. Take police violence, for example, which has been at the forefront of the national news since last August, when 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer.

"What you see is a process by which marginalized individuals, in this case black people, are driving the media narrative,” Freelon said. “They’re talking about it first and then everybody else starts talking about it because they’re able to reach a critical mass.”  

The medium used to present the news is equally important in the shaping of the story. Tony Zumbado, a photojournalist at MSNBC, filmed an astounding account of Katrina’s aftermath. The screaming children, the crying mothers, the distraught fathers and the dehydrated elderly that were captured on tape were profoundly effective in conveying what was occurring in post-Katrina New Orleans.

But what about what happened during the storm? Though these images did emerge, Americans tend to forget that the storm disproportionately affected the city’s poor black population. Even now, black New Orleanians have seen less progress in terms of jobs, schools, housing, repairs made and safety than white residents.

“People have a much easier time understanding the structural racism of police brutality and violence than they do of something like Katrina, which seems to them to be a quote-unquote natural disaster,” Freelon said. “But the nature of structural racism [is] when any sort of detrimental or harmful events occur within a given society … the people on the bottom are going to suffer a lot worse. That’s as true of Katrina as it was of 2008 financial crisis -- another case where black people got hurt the worst.”

Katrina's harm didn’t fall evenly across racial and economic barriers. An investigation following the storm by the U.S. House of Representatives "revealed that Katrina was a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare. At every level -- individual, corporate, philanthropic and governmental -- we failed to meet the challenge that was Katrina. In this cautionary tale, all the little pigs built houses of straw," the report said.

The levees were doomed to falter. Aid was seemingly destined to not come. Social media, however, could have helped people on the ground logistically by allowing them to share information among each other, and even sped up the government's response time.

"I suspect that a lot of folks who were watching the news didn’t understand how bad things were,” Freelon said. “I hope that additional eyewitness, first-person documentation of this would have contributed a greater understanding of just how damaging and harmful the storm was. And that that, in turn, would have led to a more vigorous and appropriate response. But 10 years later, there’s no real way to know what would have happened.”

George W. Bush’s White House did everything in its power to “save face” in the storm’s aftermath, media critic William Powers wrote later in The Guardian. Take Michael Chertoff, then-secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. A few days into the storm, Chertoff still maintained that the situation in New Orleans was being handled fairly well. When asked about reports that there were thousands of desperate people stranded in the city's convention center without food or water, Chertoff dismissed them as “a rumor” or “someone's anecdotal version of something.”

“When institutions aren’t doing their jobs, social media can be a catalyst,” Oates said. “Out of emergencies, networks grow -- and sometimes those networks are fairly permanent. If there had been a group that had come together on social media … they might have been able to become a political force. But that didn’t happen.”

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