Media’s Blind Spot for Low-Income Victims of Natural Disasters

by Vins
Published: Updated:

Only one-fifth of homeowners in the Houston area affected by Hurricane Harvey had flood insurance. So, what happened to the other four-fifths, not to mention those who rented the properties that they call home? As Janine Jackson reported for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), in covering Harvey, CNN and other establishment news outlets reported on the National Flood Insurance Program and how the government would respond. But, as Jackson reported, “There still is this idea that a disaster is an equalizer,” which affects all people equally. In fact, however, disasters like Harvey “call attention to real differences that exist, such that different people just can’t react the same way.”

Jackson noted that, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, media outlets became more sensitive to how poverty and racism magnify the impacts of natural disasters for many people. As deMause explained, “there are some people who, when faced with a disaster, can’t just pick up and leave, not because they are afraid to or are too stubborn to leave their homes, but because they don’t have the resources.” (During Harvey, one Rockport, Texas, resident told the BBC, “I had some problems getting out of town, a little broke and stuff, so I had to come home and, you know, tough it out.”)

Although media outlets promised that they wouldn’t forget the lesson of Katrina, mainstream coverage of Harvey focused primarily on “the helicopter of the hour” and “the latest rescue,” instead of “talking to people being rescued about what got them into this circumstance, and what is going to prevent this from happening in the future,” according to deMause. The focus of coverage on rescuers made some sense, he noted, “because that’s what they’re there to do, and they’re not going to feel like you’re imposing on them if you’re interviewing them.” However, deMause said, the job of journalists is “to figure out a way to tell the stories of the people who are caught in this, and why they’re caught in this, without just sticking a microphone at them, saying, ‘Hi, you just lost all your possessions, how does it feel?’ That’s not easy.” The general public cannot understand the severity of the problem if it is only relayed by secondary sources. Without the perspective of those most impacted by the disaster, “you then leave out a big part of the story,” deMause said.

On September 6, 2017, the New Yorker covered the subject of inequality during Hurricane Harvey. This article focused on a family in Beaumont, Texas. Harvey left the Robinsons, a family of seventeen with just two employed family members, with no place to live. The article provided a detailed account of how Harvey, combined with pre-existing inequalities, affected this extended family—and, by implication, so many others across southeastern Texas.

Democracy Now! was among the first to report on Harvey’s impacts on petrochemical facilities in the Houston area, emphasizing that the communities in closest to these facilities were low-income communities.

By contrast, the New York Times ran a story, titled “Storm With ‘No Boundaries’ Took Aim at Rich and Poor Alike,” which compared the experiences of a working-class construction worker and a doctor, concluding that “people of disparate means” had “one common experience: loss.”

Sources:

Janine Jackson, “Some People Faced With a Disaster Can’t Just Pick Up and Leave,” FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), September 7, 2017, http://fair.org/home/some-people-faced-with-a-disaster-cant-just-pick-up-and-leave/.

Neil deMause, “Disaster Coverage Still Has a Blind Spot for Low-Income Victims,” FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), September 1, 2017, http://fair.org/home/disaster-coverage-still-has-blind-spot-for-low-income-victims/.

Student Researcher: Johanna Patricia Medina (Citrus College)

Faculty Evaluator: Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College)