The FCC and the Media One Year After Katrina

by Leonard Beynes, Jurist

During Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, viewers saw pictures of poor, helpless Black people. However, two pictures appearing side-by-side on Yahoo’s website were particularly telling of the racial divide in media coverage. One picture caption described a solitary black man wading through waist-high water with a bag of groceries as “looting” whereas the other picture showed a white couple in similar circumstances and the caption described them as “finding” groceries. The media meanwhile described the Superdome where mostly-black hurricane survivors huddled as unsafe, and as a place where murders, rapes, and robberies were rampant. Later, the New Orleans Times Picayune investigated the public safety issues and found the crime that took place in the Superdome was exaggerated. This biased coverage was directly responsible for the National Guard being ordered to “shoot to kill” those whom they perceived as breaking the law during the hurricane.

A recent study by two Pennsylvania researchers, Oscar Gandy, Jr. and Chul-Joo Lee analyzed photographs appearing in the New York Times and Washington Post after the onslaught of Katrina; they found that the photographs showed a distorted picture of New Orleans with almost all black victims and virtually no black rescuers. Given that the City of New Orleans is disproportionately black, it is surprising to see so few black heroes. The choice of photographs may reinforce stereotypes of black helplessness.

Katrina crystallized and highlighted the current stereotypical media coverage of people of color. However, the news media have historically misrepresented or failed to cover minorities. In 1968 the Kerner Commission and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission blamed the media’s lack of diversity for the social unrest of the 1960s. Today, the broadcast news notoriously overreport black-on-white violent crime stories. Given racially segregated housing patterns, most crime is racially segregated. Even though crime decreased in the 1990s, coverage of crime increased 721%. In 2000, broadcast crime reporting dropped 39 percent, but still remains the third most covered topic in network news. Broadcasters often sensationalize stories with white victims or occurring in rich neighborhoods.

The FCC can remedy this stereotypical reporting by increasing diversity in the ranks of broadcast owners, managers, and employees. However, since 2002, the FCC has failed its public interest mandate and ignored issues of racial diversity. When the FCC rendered its media ownership decision in 2003, the Wall Street Journal reported that diversity was only a last minute consideration. The FCC failed to acknowledge eleven minority ownership proposals, leading the Appellate Court to partly reverse the FCC’s 2003 ownership decision.

In 2003, then-FCC Chairman Powell appointed a Diversity Committee that ultimately devised several innovative race-neutral proposals that would increase media diversity. Noting that these proposals would help remedy the underrepresentation of minorities, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, at a recent conference at St. John’s Law School, admonished the FCC for its failure to take action. In its most recent media ownership order, the FCC again has failed to sufficiently address these issues, even on a subject as urgent as requiring multilingual communications in emergencies like Hurricane Katrina.

The FCC must implement policies to increase the number of minorities who own and are employed by broadcast stations. Only 3.9 percent of all broadcast stations are owned by minorities, and only 5.2 percent of the general managers of local broadcast stations are minorities. Between 1995 and 2005, minority employees virtually disappeared from radio news; and those remaining, according to the Minority Media Communications Council work solely in minority radio. Even though minorities are better represented among television news reporters, they often are powerless to influence media coverage. In its current media ownership proceedings, the FCC should initiate bold remedies to make broadcast media and coverage more reflective of society.

Minority absences and racial misrepresentations in the media are serious concerns because they imperil our democracy. First, minorities have few avenues for robust discussion of issues important to their communities. Second, negative representations of minorities are broadcast without critical analysis and often without the presentation of the opposing viewpoints. As a consequence negative perceptions are continually reinforced and become more tightly woven into the fabric of U.S. society. More diversity in the newsroom and in media ownership can counter these negative representations by creating more opportunities for diverse voices to emerge. Only the FCC has the power to address this woeful imbalance in media ownership and employment and the concomitant effect on balanced coverage. So far, the FCC has failed to act.

Leonard M. Baynes is Professor of Law and Director of the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development at St. John’s University School of Law

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