Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Media Bias in Katrina Coverage

In reviewing some research I performed this summer, I came across an interesting variance in perspectives in the national vs. local media coverage of some post-disaster events in New Orleans.

On Wednesday, January 12, 2006, Mayor Nagin’s recovery commission unveiled its plan to guide the redevelopment of the New Orleans. The Washington Post covered the event, and its headline for the story was “Hostility Greets Katrina Recovery.” The Post went on to explain the emotion of the protesters, the well-reasoned opposition to a proposed light-rail system, and the widely-shared belief (at least among activists), that the commission was simply trying to find a way to abandon black neighborhoods by imposing a moratorium on the issuance of building permits. However, in its coverage of the meeting, the Times Picayune titled its story: “Rebuilding proposal gets mixed reception.” The Times Picayune article stressed the temporary nature of the moratorium and that it was part of a long term plan for success. The Times-Pic. chose to include quotes by residents of the Ninth Ward threatening violence if the city tried to take private property in their neighborhood. Opposition to the plan was also discounted when the author’s attempted to paint confusion and infighting among the nonprofit groups that stood in opposition to the plan.

Additional anecdotal evidence arises in comparing coverage of a protest concerning public housing. Former public housing residents publicly protested the prolonged closure of thee public housing units on June 6. The New York Times described a reasonably well-organized protest taking place in “bone baking heat,” with residents making their way through barbed-wire fences to begin cleaning their former homes. The article related a powerful vignette when a passerby stopped to offer assistance to the protesters, empathizing with the protesters’ desire to return to their homes. In contrast, The Times Picayune described a protest that was unorganized and as one that “resembled a block party.” Moreover, while the New York Times described residents “clamoring” to get home, the Times Picayune only found residents that were merely “wondering” when they would be permitted to return.

Bias in the media is widely recognized (at least, perhaps, outside of the media establishment itself), but I am always disturbed to see it in action.

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