Tuesday, September 27, 2005

NOLA != Lord of the Flies

The LA Times reports today that media stories concerning rapes, murders, and other sociopathic behavior in Katrina's wake may have been slightly exaggerated and/or based on unconfirmed rumor. I for one am absolutely shocked; I can't believe that news outlets would ever blow unsubstantiated, sensationalistic hearsay out of proportion to increase ratings or sales. But seriously, we all should have seen this coming. The fact that things weren't as bad as initial reports indicated is unequivocally great news--it's a testament to the intestinal fortitude of those who were left behind that neither the Superdome nor the convention center descended into a Hobbesian "war of all against all."

Couple points: first, I don't know how prevalent this sentiment is around the blogosphere, but at least one commenter to Kevin Drum's recent post on the topic (John H.) was quick to hurl allegations of anti-Bush bias at the networks and papers who propagated reports of epidemic chaos. I suppose if you've already decided in advance that the media is hellbent on sinking the president, you start seeing evidence of it everywhere--even when more logical explanations, such as a generalized media disaster bias, explain the given phenomenon better. Besides, as the American Journalism Review noted a couple years back (emphasis mine):
A July report released by the nonpartisan Council for Excellence in Government examined the first year of three presidential administrations--Ronald Reagan's, Bill Clinton's and George W. Bush's--and concluded that coverage was predominantly "negative" for all three. "Bush is being treated normally for a president, which is to say negatively," says S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, an independent group that conducted the study. "The media are tough on presidents."
Yeah, no shit. Some conservatives these days seem to be suffering from amnesia--they can't recall how tough the press was on Clinton in the late '90s or the meaning of fiscal conservatism.

My second point involves the predominantly "proestablishment" effects of news framing. Painting blacks as amoral savages just barely reined in by the rule of law panders to the unconscious (at least I hope they are) prejudices and fears of middle-class white society, which (so the theory goes) boosts sales and ratings among that demographic. The opportunity to run with such a sensationalistic, stereotype-consistent story may have superseded normal journalistic fact-checking protocols, especially if editors were counting on viewers and readers not to care too much if the reports later turned out to be overblown or even completely false. True, NOLA's demolished infrastructure prevented information from circulating as quickly as it normally would, but the media nevertheless shouldn't have shirked its duty to distinguish sharply between verifiable facts and rumors buoyed by the widespread confusion.

UPDATE: Obsidian Wings' Hilzoy has a far more cogent and insightful piece on this topic than mine. We cover similar bases but she also talks about how unconscious racism might have affected news reports as well as the federal, state and local responses. Great stuff.