The media today: In Harvey reporting, two ethics questions raised

As the citizens of New Orleans suffered the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, two images from the storm’s aftermath drew widespread attention and criticism. Both showed people wading through chest-deep water clutching soda and other goods, but one featured a young black man, the other a white couple. The Associated Press caption accompanying the first image described the man as “looting,” while the second, from Getty Images, labeled the couple as “finding” their goods.

The conversations sparked by those photos raised familiar questions about race-based descriptions and the choices reporters make in labeling the actions of people in a disaster. Both organizations stood by their word choices, because the photographers who shot the images cited additional observations that they claimed justified the decisions.

ICYMI: Headlines editors probably wish they could take back

Twelve years later, with Texas deluged by flooding from Harvey, reporters find themselves in a similar position. On Tuesday, ABC News’s Tom Llamas tweeted that he had witnessed “looting” at a supermarket in Houston, and that he had informed police. After sharp criticism from Twitter users, Llamas deleted and attempted to clarify his earlier message.

The narrative that looting and other lawless behaviors run rampant in the midst of a humanitarian crisis is a pernicious one. Though incidents of theft and crime occurred during events like Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, widespread myths about roving bands of murderous criminals in New Orleans fueled a perception unsupported by evidence that still persists today. A similar storyline has played out on a smaller scale in Houston, where unconfirmed reports have people shooting at the boats of civilian rescuers. None of those claims could be verified. In the context of a situation that has already resulted in at least 37 deaths, reporters should have better things to do than directing police toward people just trying to survive and feeding a narrative that encourages panic.

As to another act of reporting that drew criticism on Tuesday, I have more sympathy. CNN’s Rosa Flores was speaking with residents in a Houston shelter when a woman she was interviewing, understandably distraught in the midst of a disaster, unloaded on the reporter. “Y’all sitting here, y’all trying to interview people during their worst times. Like, that’s not the smartest thing to do,” the woman, identified only as Danielle, said.

Danielle’s response was honest and justified. So, too, was Flores’s interest in her story. Reporting on disasters is messy, awkward, and often invasive. Journalists obviously need to take precautions to not offend, to gain permission from interviewees, and to act with decency, but on-the-ground reporting is part of what’s driving attention and action in response to Harvey’s devastation. Despite criticism from some, Flores was doing her job, however uncomfortable it might be.

Below, more on these issues.

Other notable stories

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.