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Columnist, Nieman fellow Mary Curtis on coverage of the aftermath of Katrina

COMMENTARY | September 17, 2005

For today’s reporters, understanding they don’t know much about poor people is the starting point. Will they stay with the story long enough to get up to speed?

By Mary Curtis



Q. When journalists report on an America different and poorer from their America, how does their privileged prism color the story? What can they do to insure balanced reporting?


Q. Big stories – the Iraq prison torture scandal is one example – often fade as a result of breaking news as well as public and press fatigue. How do journalists report the complicated aftermath of Katrina –which involves everything from wetlands protection to the role of government in disaster relief – and keep themselves and the public interested?


Q. Will news organizations commit to more projects on class, poverty and race in America?


I was riveted as television and newspapers recorded the escalating disaster of Hurricane Katrina. I was stunned as the storm’s aftermath grew more disastrous.


I am a journalist. I am an American. I am an African American.


The people on the rooftops of a drowning New Orleans are me and yet they are not.


Not many journalists live in the projects or a trailer. Most I know own a car. Their bank accounts may not be fat, but they usually contain more than $8. That might be why one television reporter seemed so shocked when an evacuee gave her bank balance as exactly that.


How can someone live like that?


My parents sold their first car for a down payment on their first and only home, a modest, Baltimore row house. It took them nearly 10 years of saving to afford their next car. I explained to my son that I – the youngest of five children – clearly remember when the family finally bought that Ford Fairlane.


You can live a hard-working life without a car – walking and public transportation are two alternatives. But it puts you at a disadvantage when you have to get out of town fast.


For the most part, journalists did a great job telling the story of Katrina, and the New Orleans Times Picayune did even better with its years of warnings about what eventually came to pass.


The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and others have recently reported on class differences in America. Still, when Katrina hit, there was a hint of “where did all these poor, mostly black people come from,” and not just from government officials.


Journalists have already debated, “Are they refugees, evacuees or survivors?” and “What’s the difference between scavenging and looting?” To that I would add: When is it “us” and when is it “them”? Let’s talk about it before we parachute into another story, another disaster.


Every day journalists report on subjects we know little about, from stem cell research to Greco Roman wrestling. We research, ask questions, get up to speed. Then, we can report nuance and discover shades of gray.


It can’t be that hard to do the same for people. The first step is admitting that you don’t know what you don’t know.


Even if it took your dad years to buy a car.


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