Bias written in black and white: study

by NICHOLAS HIRSHON, New York Daily News

A lack of racially diverse newsrooms often leads to biased media coverage of major events such as Hurricane Katrina, according to a St. John's University School of Law study.

Photos, captions and articles published in the wake of the deadly storm that ravaged New Orleans last year reinforced racial stereotypes, the study said.

Time and again, the media presented black survivors as looters, while avoiding the label for whites, according to the report, presented last week to FCC commissioners during a public hearing at Hunter College.

Part of the study examined photos and captions published in The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

Among the photos that mentioned "looting," African-Americans were shown 83% of the time. Meanwhile, whites were pictured in 66% of photos of people "guarding property."

"I think a lot of people are just mad at the media because they feel it's not fulfilling its civic function," said St. John's law Prof. Leonard Baynes, who edited the study.

The St. John's report emerged from an April conference at the Jamaica, Queens, school, in which nearly 100 legal experts, journalists and journalism critics participated.

The report notes numerous examples of biased news coverage during Hurricane Katrina, the first coming on Aug. 25, 2005, when water breached a levee and flooded 20% of New Orleans.

The wire service Agence France-Presse published a photo that day of a white couple carrying food and beverages through chest-deep water. A caption described their trek as occurring after "finding bread and soda from a local grocery store."

When The Associated Press published a similar photo the next day of a black man with food and drinks, the caption described him as "looting a grocery store."

The study acknowledges that the photos came from different agencies with different caption-writing standards, and that AP photographer David Martin said he saw the black man break into a grocery store and take food.

But the report's authors still wondered whether the black man should have been described as a looter in the context of the disaster.

"If the subject had been white, would the caption have been the same? It's impossible to say," the authors wrote. "But the incident does point to the complex, perhaps damning, role race played in the media's coverage of the disaster."

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey