When disaster strikes, many people turn to the media for the latest news and updates. As people at home watch the story unfold, media professionals are forced to give constant updates and information, resulting in what some critics would consider sensationalized news.
“In moments like these, it is the media that takes advantage,” said Kathleen Haspel, professor of communication studies and moderator for the latest Hot Topics event.
On Feb. 19, about 30 students and some FDU faculty and administrators gathered in Lenfell Hall to listen to a panel discussion titled, “When Disaster Strikes: The Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the Earthquake in Haiti.”
In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, scholars, including those who spoke on the panel, have begun to research and analyze the media coverage.
Some media critics would agree that the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina prevented society from seeing the true victims as victims, according to Haspel, who has researched the coverage. “New Orleans was depicted as a third world county,” she said. “This created an unsympathetic portrayal of victims.”
She also noted that rumors and exaggerations from bystanders were picked up by the media and published as fact, such as stories of children being raped that were later found to be untrue.
“The news stories shape our world views,” she said. “We were depicting our own people as ‘others,’ that act as violent criminals that do not deserve help.”
Gregory Adamo, a professor of communication studies at Morgan State University and another panelist, noted the criticism that the media received for Katrina coverage “may have slightly tempered the coverage for Haiti. It seems there have not been such ridiculous and outlandish statements.”
While that may be true, there are still flaws in media coverage of disasters. Haspel pointed out a story on “Nightline,” when a reporter said, “As you can see I’m surrounded by refugees.” But a refugee, by definition, is a person who flees his or her own country for safety. Calling people who stayed in their home country “refugees” was inaccurate and, many believe, offensive.
Katherine Dunsmore, professor of communication studies here at FDU, also spoke to the audience about the problematic coverage.
“The coverage depicts the worst possible kind of case,” she said. “The process gets left out and people don’t see the whole picture.”
Dunsmore went on to talk about the ten Americans who were arrested for trying to bring 33 Haitian children to the United States for adoption. But they were not orphans, just separated from their families.
That was just one story that captured headlines in recent weeks. Consumers of the news were anxious to learn more about the Haiti earthquake, and the U.S.-based media was forced to parachute into the story, according to Sarah Latson, lecturer in journalism at FDU.
“Many members of mainstream media did not have people on the ground,” said Latson, who cited a Columbia Journalism Review report that only one foreign correspondent from a U.S. media outlet was based in Haiti at the time of the earthquake. It wasn’t until the day after the earthquake hit that other correspondents arrived from the U.S.
Latson went on to talk about the impact social media played in the initial hours. Even The New York Times, she said, was asking for people in Haiti or people who knew someone in Haiti to post comments about what was going on.
Once news outlets were in Haiti, she pointed out, the images produced were seen as being more graphic than ever before.
“Some criticisms are that the graphic photos are considered offensive,” she said. “Others say these images are telling the stories.”
While the Hot Topic issue was that the media often fails to adequately report stories, it was not the only subject addressed. Instead of being concerned with the facts and history of Haiti, Adamo said, people are more concerned about Tiger Woods’ apology and baseball’s spring training in Florida.
“Criticism of media coverage still goes on today,” Adamo said. “But we also need to support the media that does correctly cover important stories.”

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