It’s Time for a Narrative Shift in Post-Disaster Journalism [OP-ED]

By Alicia Bell, Amy Kroin, Collette Watson Oct 18, 2018

Wilmington, North Carolina, is a city full of rich and beautiful Black history interwoven with intense racial violence.

After Hurricane Florence hit the area last month, the owners of a flooded Family Dollar discount store were alerted that hurricane survivors were entering and leaving with goods. According to a statement from Wilmington police, the store owners asked law enforcement to stand down. They did not wish to press charges.

Around the same time, WECT-TV reporter Chelsea Donovan arrived at the scene with a video crew. Donovan confronted survivors, asking why they were “looting” and if they knew they were “stealing.” WECT then published and broadcast the confrontations Donovan initiated under the headline “WATCH: Looters Raid Family Dollar, Police Now Trying to Make Arrests.”

Within days, the video had garnered thousands of views and hundreds of comments—most reflecting racist tropes and perspectives. On Facebook alone, people have shared Donovan’s report nearly 9,000 times and counting, and news outlets across the country shared the story.

When Journalism Oppresses

When hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters strike, we often say “the best” of our communities emerges. We see reports that showcase narratives of unity, resilience and strength.

Unfortunately, these aren’t the only stories that unfold.

Examining the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in North Carolina provides an excellent case study of how post-disaster narratives are shaped and shared—and how these approaches can build on, compound and perpetuate deep histories of racial and economic oppression.

The store is located across the street from a public-housing project, which featured prominently in parts of the video. The video focused on the so-called criminality of the survivors and reinforced stereotypes about poor people, Black people and public housing. Meanwhile, it did little to contextualize the lives of the people it depicted—lives shaped today and historically by redlining, segregation, gentrification, employment discrimination, educational inequities and environmental injustice.

In Wilmington, police used screenshots from the WECT video in a Facebook post asking for help in identifying the survivors to pursue them for arrest and prosecution. The city’s district attorney has since announced that more than 30 people face charges for “looting,” presumably at various sites around the area.

Looting or Surviving: Loaded Perspectives in Journalism

Many people define journalism as an objective presentation of facts. So, let’s examine a few facts in this story:

It’s true that individuals were taking items from the Family Dollar store without permission.

It’s true that the store owners did not want police intervention.

It’s true that Category 2 Hurricane Florence made landfall in Wilmington one day before this incident, bringing historic flooding and damage to roads, water and other basic infrastructure.

It’s true that “the floodplains [of North Carolina] read like maps of economic inequality,” disproportionately impacting low-income residents.

It’s true that people, regardless of economic status, deserve to survive.

It’s true that how news outlets characterize disaster survivors depends on an individual’s race.

And finally, it’s true that misinformation doesn’t happen simply because journalists report false information. Misinformation also happens when they fail to represent the entirety of a community or identity of a people, and when they use information only from individuals in positions of power who consistently put forward oppressive narratives.

Reports like Donovan’s aren’t just presentations of neutral facts. Every journalist’s lived experiences inform how they interpret what they see.

Echoes of Hurricane Katrina Coverage

This dynamic isn’t new; a similar one unfolded in the reporting on Hurricane Katrina. The residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, who were primarily Black and low-income, bore the brunt of the storm’s wrath. The neighborhood was the last in the city to have power and water service restored, and the last to have floodwater drained—but much of the coverage created an unsympathetic portrait of community members who were struggling to survive.

A report from The Guardian that marked the storm’s 10-year anniversary notes that the flooding created an information vacuum because reporters were barred from entering certain parts of the city. The misinformation they opted to report instead actually jeopardized rescue operations: Alarmist television coverage left school bus drivers too afraid to drive into New Orleans to help people evacuate.

Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, who coordinated 300 members of the National Guard charged with maintaining order, told The Guardian that while television reports focused on people looting stores that sold expensive items, most people were searching for essentials like food, water and medicine. “It was way over-reported,” Honoré said. “People confused looting with people going into survival mode. It’ll happen to you and I if we were just as isolated.”

Fear of looting, The Guardian noted, prompted then-Governor Kathleen Blanco to warn the public that troops had M16s and were “locked and loaded.”

“These troops know how to shoot and kill,” Blanco said during a press conference just a few days after the storm hit. “They are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.”

Within this climate, quasi-military groups composed primarily of White residents and police officers formed in various parts of the city, leading to racially motivated violence that resulted in at least three deaths. One of the victims, an unarmed Black men, was shot by police while he was searching for baby food.

Moving Forward From Florence

As climate change accelerates and storms like Katrina and Florence become more common, how can journalists cover disasters in a way that respects people of all races and incomes? How can they probe environmental racism and explore how disasters disproportionately impact people of color?

It all starts with relationships. Relationships require journalists to see themselves not just as members of the press but as community members. Relationships enable them to move past stereotypes and assumptions and ask the crucial questions that can illuminate what’s ailing a community.

In the Wilmington area, that looks like a strong community of activists, organizers and neighbors who critique and disrupt injustice while supporting each other in a way that’s essential within marginalized communities. After Hurricane Florence, these folks went into action uplifting full truths, untold stories, and sharing important information across NC county lines, both online and person to person.

There are also members of the media working hard to be in relationship with community members, and providing news and information to help us all think more critically. Consider, for instance, these articles and reports, which take a community-oriented look at what happened during Hurricane Florence. Richard Fausset’s report for The New York Times begins with the story of Wilmington public housing resident Keisha Monk, then delves into the dynamics that cause these residents to bear the brunt of extreme weather and disasters.

National and regional organizations like City Bureau, Hearken, Listening Post Collective, News Voices, Scalawag and Working Narratives are thinking and innovating when it comes to community journalism and the work of achieving justice and equity, showing that community-rooted, multifaceted, transformative journalism is possible.

The people strengthening community journalism make us certain of two things: Residents and media working collaboratively can produce the kind of news that’s needed to support thriving, healing communities—and journalists who have been perpetuating misinformation can decide to do something different. Change is happening, and we all stand to benefit.

Alicia Bell is the News Voices: North Carolina organizer at Free Press (@freepress), Collette Watson (@collette_music) is the organization’s digital communications manager and Amy Kroin (@amykroin) is the editor.