Research Proposal: Race, Class, Death, Destruction, Murder, Malfeasance, Violence, Faith, Good, and Evil: Why Hurricane Katrina Is the Perfect Publishing Storm
Hurricane Katrina is not only one of the mostly costly natural disasters in American history—it is arguably the most covered by the media. The storm and its subsequent aftermath launched more than a debate about national priorities and continuing poverty in the United States—the hurricane and the events that followed launched media, academic, and popular publishing projects. To date, Amazon lists more than 130 books about Katrina and well as over 100 government and task-force reports that are in print and available for purchase. Likewise, Lexis-Nexis lists over 3,0000 newspaper articles. Google scholarly and academic databases are replete with Katrina-inspired academic papers—in an array of fields from the obvious of disaster preparedness and engineering to sociology, mass communication, political science, and cultural studies. The majority of the news coverage—and the vast majority of the publishing and academic interest—has focused on New Orleans although arguably the Mississippi Gulf Coast suffered greater destruction from the storm itself, even greater than destruction from Hurricane Camille, the killer 1969 hurricane.
The purpose of this paper is to understand why Katrina’s impact on New Orleans has become the perfect publishing storm—both for popular and academic researchers. I propose to do this by:
1. Interviewing five key authors who have written influential books about Katrina. They are historian Doug Brinkley, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast; Jed Horne (editor of the local newspaper, The Times Picayune), Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City; Billy Sothern, Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City; Dave Eggers, Zeitounn; and Hillary Potter (editor), Racing the Storm: Racial Implications and Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina. The subject of each interview will be: do you think Hurricane Katrina is the perfect publishing storm? Why/why not?
2. Analyzing coverage in The New York Times and The Times Picayune (both known for exemplary Katrina coverage) for the first month following the story and then on the anniversary dates to 2009.
3. Analyzing coverage in Ebony (iconic black magazine) and Newsweek immediately following Katrina and on the first and subsequent anniversaries.
4. Surveying how social science research about Katrina—sociology, communication, and political science—utilized and framed the hurricane, its aftermath, and media coverage of the crisis.
Introduction: Why the topic of Katrina as the perfect media storm is important and is being explored. Knowing what the media considers important and why Katrina became the “perfect storm” of media coverage adds to communication knowledge—what makes a natural disaster salient for the media and what keeps the disaster in the realm of media coverage. The introduction will include brief background for understanding. This will include the human and monetary costs of Katrina and the status of New Orleans (socio-demographics and trends before and after Katrina.)
Literature Review: Articles on the media coverage and social and racial implications of Katrina and its aftermath.
The literature review will conclude with the hypothesis and research questions.
Hypothesis: Katrina was the perfect storm because the story extended far beyond both the natural and arguably manmade (the improperly constructed and casually inspected levees and inadequate disaster planning) to an ontology of post modern America—unresolved issues of race, class, violence, poverty, civic duty, and personal responsibility. Katrina as a metaphor is the story of unresolved, divisive issues in America—and a story that has found literally hundreds, if not thousands, of story tellers
Research Question: Why was Katrina the “perfect media storm” and how did this affect coverage?
Research Question: What are the major frames of the influential books compared to newspaper and magazine stories and academic journals?
Method: The methods section will be in two parts. Part one will be interviews with as many of the five authors as possible. The subject of each interview will be: do you think Hurricane Katrina is the perfect publishing storm? Why/why not? If so, why?
Part two will be a qualitative framing analysis to discover major frames in coverage. Key elements to capture will be major themes, underlying themes, who is quoted and who is not quoted. A coding sheet will be developed to capture theme and quote information. The sheet will also include publication and publication date—to determine if and how coverage has changed in framed used, and in what publications, during the four years since the storm and its aftermath.
Results: There will be a qualitative discussion of result with some notations of possible trends, i.e. more or fewer articles relating to class, race, and media coverage and changes in frames.
Discussion: What do the findings mean?
Limitations and Future Research: What has limited the research into the topic i.e. the difficulty of magazine research on news and academic databases; possible incompleteness of book titles relating to Katrina. Other limitations as they develop during the course of the project.
Bennett, W. Lance, Lawrence, Regina G., and Livingston, Steven, When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina, University of Chicago Press, 2007.
According to the authors, the nation suffers dire consequences when the press (i.e. media) accepts government explanations and fails in its watch dog role. While much of the book is devoted to Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, the authors detail how they believe the press was not tough enough on government officials, particularly FEMA, in the days after Katrina.
Brinkley, Douglas, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, New York: Morrow, 2006.
History professor, popular historian, and former New Orleans resident Douglas Brinkley wrote one of the first historical accounts of Katrina. Brinkley’s overarching theme is that Katrina was three tragedies in one: the initial killer storm (winds of over 150 mile per hour, the brunt of which hit the Mississippi Coast), the storm surge, and government mismanagement at every level. First-person accounts from survivors (Brinkley was an associate of Stephen Ambrose) add the human, storytelling element to the book. Brinkley, a professor at Tulane in New Orleans during Katrina, now teaches and runs a think tank at Rice University. The book is accepted as a reliable early telling of the Katrina story with the advantage that the Brinkley interviewed survivors while the storm was still fresh in their memories.
Chong, Dennis and Druckman, James N. (2007). Framing Theory, Annual Review of Political Science 2007, 10-103-26.
Basic definition and discussion of what framing is and why and how it is used in social science research.
Cutter, Susan, The Geography of Social Vulnerability, published online June11, 2006, in Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences, from the Social Science Research Council.
The very nature, the ethos of New Orleans as an increasingly polarized city—the wealthy “Uptown” families, an old elite of private income, private schools, and private clubs; the mostly African American disadvantaged class; and a disappearing black and white middle class—set up the city for disaster. Katrina, in this view, was simply the final blow to a city long in neglect and decline.
Dynes, Russell N. and Rodriguez, Havidan, Finding and Framing Katrina: The Social Construction of a Disaster, published online June 11, 2006, in Understanding Katrina: Perspectives, from the Social Sciences, Social Science Research Council.
The researchers state this was the first hurricane to have total 24/7 news coverage (notably from cable news) and the first “framed” predominantly by television. Other hurricanes (Galveston in particular) have caused more deaths, but they were not seen by the American public. Dynes and Rodriguez organize their study by the following frames: finding authority, finding the bad guys, and fractured frames, which refer to frames mentioned briefly in news stories without being the major theme of the story
Dyson, Michael Eric, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster, New York: Basic Civitas 2006.
The book combines the author’s assessment of the failures of key players at all levels with his background as an expert on historic black migration patterns and government policies. He is particularly concerned, given the legacy of black suffering since slavery, about how blacks are framed in the national consciousness. The unifying theme of the book is that Katrina was a failure not only of engineering and emergency preparedness (which are relatively easy to fix) but of American society, whose fix is a difficult proposition.
Elliott, James and Pais, Jeremy, Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina: Social Differences on Human Response to Disaster, Social Science Research, 35 (2006), 295-321.
Varying responses to Katrina by race and class, used for background and for the roles the differences played in citizen responses to the storm and its aftermath.
Entman, R.M. (1993), Framing: Towards Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm. Journal of Communication 43(4), 51-58.
Definition of framing and study cited in social science research.
Eggers, Dave, Zeitoun, San Francisco: McSweeney’s Publishing, 2009.
An incident in Sothern’s Down in New Orleans was the launching point for this favorably and much-reviewed (including Sunday New York Times) book. The story is a simple and chilling, Kafkaesque one, as an innocent man who stays behind to help neighbors in the wake of Katrina is caught up in the Homeland Security system—because of his Syrian ethnicity. One of the most reviewed “literary journalism” works so far to come out of the disaster.
Fink, Sheryl, The Deadly Choices At Memorial, The New York Times Magazine, August 30, 2009, 28-46.
Through a project of ProPublica, the independent, not-for-profit news organization, and with funding from the Kaiser Family Foundation, Fink investigated questionable deaths in a New Orleans neighborhood hospital. While the story has been in and out of media attention, the doctor in charge was not indicted by a grand jury. Families of the dead are still asking questions, but little seems to be happening, according to Fink’s story, that would give families closure.
Fussell, Elizabeth, Leaving New Orleans: Social Stratification, Networks and Hurricane Evacuation, published online June 11, 2006, in Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences, Social Science Research Council.
A summation of why evacuation plans mirrored the extreme social stratification of a city of haves and have nots. Unfortunately, even the mayor, who later set himself up as an advocate for the disadvantaged, took little interest, according to Fussell, in necessary planning for a worst-case scenario.
Gross, Kimberly, Race, Poverty and Causal Attribution: Media Framing of the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, 2007.
The paper is a content analysis of New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Times-Picayune, and black newspaper coverage of New Orleans after Katrina, analyzing “the extent to which poverty and racial characteristics of the victims were a focus of newspaper coverage.” Gross stated she chose to use framing because frames may be “especially consequential when they invoke specific causal arguments.” The paper analyzed the causal explanations people gave for not evacuating. The paper also analyzed who was held accountable for the failures in evacuation and victim assistance. Gross pointed out that personal responsibility became a frame in mainstream coverage while “situational explanations predominate in black press coverage.”
Hairder-Markel, Donald P., Delehanty, William, and Beverlin, Matthew Beverlin, Media Framing and Racial Attitudes in the Aftermath of Katrina, Policy Studies Journal, 35 (4), 2007, 587-605.
Using social science research methods, the researchers studied racial attitudes of blacks and whites following Katrina. This is salient as rumors persist that levees were dynamited to divert water from white to black communities—although major flooding occurred in white communities, including almost all white St. Bernard Parish, which was submerged. However, there are reasons for the rumors to persist because during the famous 1927 Great Flood, levees were actually dynamited to save white areas and white-owned property at the expenses of African-American communities.
Horne, Jed, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, New York: Random House, 2006.
Horne’s book is particularly interesting as it is told from his vantage point of the editor of the local newspaper, the venerable The Times Picayune, which is synonymous with the history for better or increasingly worst of a New Orleans already in decay before Katrina struck. In his view, the immediate politicization by all sides made the rescue and recovery even more difficult. While much of the book is based on contemporary writing, Horne added additional follow-up information before publication. His premise is similar to a number of observers—that the racial polarization, a history of corruption, and the general ineptitude of Louisiana and especially of New Orleans made a major disaster even worst—and the efforts of the federal government in the early stages only exacerbated the tragedy.
Johnston-Cartee, Karen S., News Narratives and News Framing, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005.
As an introduction to theory that explains news framing, Johnson-Cartee’s work is an explanation of the extent to which media framing affects social and political realities. This is particularly apt given various studies of how Katrina coverage was “framed” by the media and the differences in frames between the mainstream and black media and “advocacy” journalism coverage (i.e. Sothern).
Littlefield, Robert S. and Quenette, Andrea, Crisis Leadership and Hurricane Katrina: The Portrayal of Authority by the Media in Natural Disasters, Journal of Applied Communication Research, February 2007, 35 (1), 26-47.
The study is based on a textural analysis of 52 articles from the New York Times and the Times-Picayune from August 29 to September 3, 2005. They are categorized as positive or negative for the military, Homeland Security, President Bush, the federal government, and the local government. The authors take the position that “the media stepped outside their role of objective observer and assumed a privileged position to point blame toward those with legitimate authority.” This “empowered” the media to portray the response and create scenarios of reality, according to the authors, that reflected media perspective. This has wider implications, they state, as “understanding how the media create images and depictions can affect how authorities frame their initial crisis responses.”
Potter, Hillary, ed., Racing the Storm: Racial Implications and Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007.
The book is a collection of work by scholars from a variety of disciplines—sociology, political science, cultural studies, history, communication, economics—who examine the role of race in Katrina from evacuation to rescue to recovery and rebuilding. The book looks at how the various past roles of New Orleans shaped the city at the time of Katrina, the influence of African Americans on the New Orleans ethos, and how its residents faced and coped with the disaster. Also examined is the role of race on civic and media framing and the long-term implications.
Sothern, Billy, Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City, Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.
Sothern, a death penalty lawyer and current New Orleans resident, describes the stories of survivors from the most disenfranchised groups during and after Katrina. One incident in the book, the arrest of a resident of Middle Eastern ethnicity, was the basis for Zeitoun, released in July 2009. While the book is based is Sothern’s experiences and interviews, it includes extensive footnotes from contemporary news accounts (television, radio, and print) and historical, environmental, and social science research.
Troutt, David Dante, ed., After the Storm: Black Intellectuals Explore the Meaning of Hurricane Katrina. New York: New Press, 2006.
Writers and academics posit their ideas why Katrina is much more than a natural or environment disaster, why blacks were disproportionately negatively impact, and the implications of a seemingly “permanent underclass” for American society.
Tierney, Kathleen, Beve, Christine, and Kuligowski, Erica, Metaphors Matter: Disaster Myths, Media Frames and Their Consequences in Hurricane Katrina, The Annals of Political and Social Sciences, 2006, 604 (1), 57-81.
The authors state that mass media typically equate disasters with civil unrest, which they said promulgated erroneous beliefs. In this paper, they posit the idea that the media “greatly exaggerated the incidence and severity of looting and lawlessness” in the “civil unrest” frame. In their view, this is used to reinforce “political discourse calling for a greater role for the military in disaster management.”