Media struggle with words that have racial tinge

`Refugee' and `looting' among terms causing furor, soul-searching

Katrina's Wake

September 10, 2005|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,SUN STAFF

The ugly specter of racism has clouded the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in the media as much as anywhere.

In the blame game that often follows such events, members of the news media are wrestling over accusations that their use of certain terms - most notably refugees and looting - has exacerbated racial tensions during a disaster in which, tragically, most of the victims appear to be African-American.

Many reporters tiptoed around that in the days after the storm hit Aug. 29, as though mentioning race was racist in itself. Then there were charges that, in some articles and photo captions, people who availed themselves of merchandise from stores in New Orleans were being described differently according to color - blacks were "looters," while whites were "taking" or "finding" what they needed.

In addition, as rescuers continue to look for stranded victims in the flooded neighborhoods of New Orleans, a debate has raged over the media's use of refugees to describe the victims. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson called the word "racist." Some African-Americans said it implied that the victims were outcasts, unworthy of the attention and aid that might have accrued to white people in better parts of town.

President Bush said the victims were not refugees. "They're Americans," he said.

In that volatile environment, several news organizations, including National Public Radio, The Baltimore Sun, The Miami Herald and The Boston Globe, decided to stop using refugee. Editors at the Los Angeles Times said they would use the word "advisedly" but did not tell reporters they should avoid it. The New York Times and the Associated Press said they would continue to use it on grounds that it means someone seeking refuge.

At the heart of the matter, many journalists and scholars agreed, is that Katrina showed Americans and the world the unvarnished face of poverty in the United States and that the face is mostly black.

Mary L. Dudziak, a law professor at the University of Southern California and a civil rights historian, wrote in an op-ed article in The Boston Globe on Sept. 2: "There is immediate suffering in Katrina's wake, but the hurricane has swept over a structure of American inequality, exposing it for a moment."

In a telephone interview yesterday from Harvard Law School, where she is a visiting professor, Dudziak said that Americans "are profoundly uncomfortable talking about race" and that the difficulties caused by the media's use of certain words reflects that discomfort.

"All we have is this flat-footed language with which to face this crisis," Dudziak said. Debate over refugee, she said, might reflect that refugees "always have questionable citizen status," a notion that, in the United States, had traditionally extended to blacks, most of whose ancestors were brought to the United States under duress.

In other contexts, words such as crusade, jihad and terrorist, when applied carelessly or without specificity, have provoked similar debates.

Pictures of hurricane victims taking items from stores in New Orleans and other parts of the devastated Gulf Coast conjured visions of race riots in burning cities. Nevertheless, some newspapers made an effort to avoid making such a connection.

Randolph D. Brandt, editor of The Journal Times in Racine, Wis., said he told his staff to change references to "looting" in picture captions to "taking" and to "let readers draw their own conclusion from the context."

"I can't know whether somebody taking battery-powered tools from a ruined hardware store is looting or trying to find something he can use to get grandma out of the attic or fix his boat," he said in a posting on the Poynter Institute Web site.

Some journalists were careful to point out that the looting was not restricted to blacks.

Bryan Monroe, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, wrote on the Poynter site that "there was looting by whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, all races."

"No doubt, some people were being opportunistic - or just plain stealing - but most were just trying to survive, any way they could," Monroe wrote.

An NABJ statement this week suggested that editors "exercise scrutiny" when describing the behavior of people in the disaster area as "looting." It said editors and reporters should rely "on firsthand, direct observation and factual confidence that the actions in news reports and in photographs are indeed the criminal act before affixing the label."

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