What Hurricane Katrina Taught Me About News Framing

Painting by El Franco Lee II

Wouldn’t you loot? If you didn’t have the loot

Baby needed food and you was stuck on the roof

And helicopters swoop down just to get a scoop

Through his telescopic lens, but he didn’t scoop you

And the next five days, no help ensued

They called you a refugee because you seek refuge

- “Minority Report” by Jay-Z

My maternal great-grandmother Lou had passed away a few months prior to the Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in 2005. My father had took my brother and I on a trip to meet her a year earlier.

She was a diminutive woman, about 4’10, skin darkened from the Louisiana sun and captivating grey, almost silver eyes. She lived alone in a small house near Franklin, LA. While my great-grandmother prepared the food, my brother and I played in the backyard, throwing rocks up at her tall tree which was almost entirely covered in spider webs. Back in the kitchen, she made enough food to feed at least nine people. During the same trip, my father took us to see the plantation my maternal side had lived; the place where we took the surname “Francis.” It was a haunting privilege, one that most Black people in America don’t get. Memories of that trip fill me with senses of joy, pain, love, nobility and responsibility.

As strange at it may sound, my first reaction to Hurricane Katrina making landfall was relief. I was glad that the oldest matriarch of my family had passed before the storm. I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like for my mother, aunts and uncles and my grandma Alice if Grandma Lou was caught in the path of the behemoth. I was glad that neither she nor they had to go through that type of suffering.

But as I watched all the disaster footage from Katrina’s aftermath, my relief was chase away by a sense of guilt; shame for having ostensibly “positive” feelings as my initial reaction to one of the worst natural disasters of our country had seen. I felt selfish for not first sympathizing with the thousands of people struggling to survive in cities like New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast. That combination of shame and empathy was corrective; it made me want stay aware of what was going in the areas Katrina had devastated.

I can’t say for sure if I had ever watched CNN before that period. But I tuned into the footage of survivors wading through chest-high flood waters, avoiding remnants of damaged or destroyed structures, or families stranded on their houses as helicopters swooped down to grab footage instead of rescuing them.

I saw people giving every inch of effort to survive. It was a lot to take in.

But looking back on that moment, I realized how much watching the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina transformed how I consumed and interpreted news media, particularly as it related to race. I sat in the living room, glued to different news channels broadcasting footage of folks rummaging through stores to find food, clothes, and other supplies. I noticed that when the survivors were white, news programs displayed descriptions such as “Hurricane Survivors Searching For Supplies.” But when the people on the screen were African American, the chyron read things such as “Katrina Refugees Looting Clothes.” This type of disparity was even more blatant if you flipped to Fox News.

As a 15-year-old Black boy from Chicago–a diverse city suffused with segregation–I had experience with both implicit and explicit racism. But before then, I had an unsophisticated level of media literacy. I assumed that “The News” was always just “reporting” in the bland sense of the word–the presentation of facts and events, “Journalism of Verification” no more or less controversial than presenting a history report or presentation on an element from the periodic table. But the disparate coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s victims sparked my critical thinking about how race, particular Blackness, informs how the news media interpret and report on events.

What lens was mainstream news media filtering this tragedy through? What perspective was it taking, and what were the underlying assumptions, beliefs and biases informing that perspective? Would this lens change, challenge, or confirm viewers views on who could be a victim and who couldn’t; who deserved empathy and who didn’t?

I had always thought news was merely a mirror. It was strange to find out that it was more like a prism.

Though I didn’t have the critical vocabulary at the time, something clicked: I had been introduced to, or at least had a more tangible reference for the idea of “news framing.” It was formative in my understanding of how news worked — that it wasn’t purely objective and unbiased, but filtered through the prism of our individual and collective subject positions. Whether we are conscious of it or not, the way we frame the stories we tell has tremendous power in shaping how the country, even the world, sees itself.

Reporters flaunt the famous maxim about their jobs, that they “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” But in watching the Katrina coverage, all I could see was the double affliction of people fighting to survive, whose full humanity wasn’t take as a base assumption. Journalists pride themselves on objectivity, yet they made Black bodies mere objects. News often runs by the problematic truism “if it bleeds it leads,” yet the media made it seem like Black folk didn’t bleed the same as others. The tropes of Black criminality were being issued even in a situation where they were victims in the most pure form. It was as if there was only enough room for one type of victim, and that spot had already been reserved.

The racial news framing of Hurricane Katrina showed me the power of the stories we tell, the people we amplify, and the voices we omit. It showed me that what we think about people affects how we cover them. It showed me that the camera wasn’t the only lens. It was hurtful, but revealing. It was scornful, but liberating.

To its credit, there were many within mainstream media who amplified the discourse surrounding the Bush administration’s slow disaster response. But when Kanye West said “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” during a televised Hurricane Katrina relief concert, I felt so proud to hear someone I admired to say the quiet part out loud. And in both my journalistic and academic career, I try to pull those quiet parts out and give them the platforms they deserve.

I didn’t know it then, but the coverage of Hurricane Katrina is the thing that made me want to become a journalist.

But maybe more than that, it made me want to be a truth-teller. It made me want to promise that I would always try my best to say the quiet part out loud.