In noting the approaching tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s ravaging of New Orleans, the New York Times chose to run with the race angle: “Racially Disparate Views of New Orleans’s Recovery After Hurricane Katrina” screams the headline.I have commented many times about the tendency, in much of the media, to indulge in advocacy journalism but to then subvert their very goal by the facts of their own reporting. They have a hard time finding genuinely sympathetic victims of whatever the problem is that they are profiling. It isn't that you can't sympathize with the victim. It is too often the case that the outcomes were a predictable result of the victim's own actions. I am sorry you lost your house to a hurricane on the coast and didn't have insurance. But why did you choose to build an uninsured, wood construction house, on a beach front with a regular history of hurricanes?
But the facts don’t fit the narrative, and the story quickly falls apart. Readers who go below the first two paragraphs will discover that the big difference after Katrina is between people who live in neighborhoods that were deeply flooded, who have a less positive view of the recovery, and those who live in neighborhoods where the damage wasn’t as severe. This is hardly surprising. And it turns out that whites outside New Orleans, in parishes where the flooding was bad, are less positive about the recovery than New Orleans residents:
That the extent of the flooding is directly connected to the perception of recovery is also reflected outside New Orleans. The survey shows that people in neighboring Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes, both of which were predominantly white and were catastrophically flooded, have even dimmer views of the extent of recovery than the residents of New Orleans.So it isn’t a black-white divide; it’s a flood damage divide, and whites as well as blacks fell on the wrong side of it.
Mead says it better.
It’s clear that there’s a full court press at the Gray Lady to focus on race these days. There’s nothing wrong with that; race remains a major issue in the U.S. But the hunger to fit facts to a narrative ultimately devalues the very concerns that the Times wants its readers to focus on. Good journalism certainly isn’t incompatible with a strong point of view. But far too often, the Times slips into bad advocacy journalism, using the journalistic equivalent of hamburger helper to bulk up a case that otherwise looks weak. That makes for both poor journalism and poor advocacy.I would go one step further than Mead. He correctly, using the facts reported by the NYT itself, notes that the divide is between flooded populations and those who were not and that there were both flooded white neighborhoods and flooded black neighborhoods and they have comparable views on how the recovery has proceeded.
I would add that there is a missing class division as well. Whether white or black, most of the areas that were flooded were poor neighborhoods. Their circumstances were hard to start with and Katrina made them much worse. They lived in flood prone areas because that is what they could afford. The real NYT headline would actually read "NOLA Poor, Hardest Hit!" It has the virtue of being true and consistent with the information the Times itself reports. From the perspective of advocacy journalism it has the disadvantage of taking the heat out of the preferred jeremiad.
As always is the case, to solve a problem, you have to define it well. Misdirecting the reading public as to what is actually happening is not only bad journalism but it fosters bad solutions.