Mainstream Media Lose Interest in Poor Katrina Survivors’ Predicaments

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, mainstream print and television media suddenly rediscovered poverty and the existence of an underclass—conditions that made it almost impossible for many of Katrina’s victims to leave New Orleans before the storm and that have made poor survivor’s life extremely difficult after the storm. Yet, despite predictions that the disaster would lead to an extended examination of poverty, race, and class, an Extra! analysis of media coverage found that with few exceptions, the media's rediscovery of impoverished Americans lasted barely a month. What little coverage there has been since then seldom goes beyond tales of individual tragedy, and avoids both the systemic causes of destitution as well as possible policies to overcome the problem.

For the eight months following Katrina, network newscasts spent an average of four seconds per night on poverty issues—up from an average of two-and-a-half seconds in the years before Katrina, but still only half the time devoted to stock market developments, for instance.

The six-month anniversary of Katrina coincided with New Orleans' first post-hurricane Mardi Gras, leading more than 1,000 news outlets to request media credentials to cover the event. But by then the Gulf Coast's poor were no longer in the spotlight. Hardly any journalists ventured beyond the French Quarter. Fewer still traveled to Houston or Atlanta to interview the hundreds of thousands of poor New Orleans residents still unable to return.

Among the widely neglected stories are the following developments:

  • The poor—about 20 percent of the storm victims—are being squeezed out by demolition and redevelopment. In the city of Biloxi, African-American and Vietnamese neighborhoods were razed in the wake of the storm.
    New Orleans is so strapped for housing that hotels were charging $5 just for a hot shower in early 2006.
  • Students at successful New Orleans high schools found themselves abruptly relocated to failing schools in their new home cities.
  • The vast majority of a $2 billion pool of federal welfare dollars earmarked for hurricane evacuees was going untapped because states couldn't be bothered to fill out the paperwork.
  • New Orleans could ultimately lose half its population, in part due to a lack of affordable housing for its former residents.

Neil deMause, “Katrina's Vanishing Victims. Media Forget the 'Rediscovered' Poor,” Extra! (FAIR, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting), July/August 2006.