Since the dawn of professional journalism during the 17th century, broadsides and later newspapers covered a range of natural disasters. Destruction and especially the suffering of victims have been persistent themes for which the public has a seemingly insatiable appetite.1 From the shipwreck and storm narratives of the 18th and 19th centuries to contemporary newspaper and broadcast reports of floods, wildfires and earthquakes, disasters have commanded public attention.
On Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2005, the National Hurricane Center projected that a major tropical depression would strike the Gulf Coast of the United States somewhere between Florida and Texas. Three days later, Katrina was now a Category 5 storm, with a path centering on New Orleans. Residents were advised to evacuate. The storm made landfall on the morning of Aug. 29 near the Mississippi-Louisiana border. Not until the following day, when news of the levee failures in New Orleans emerged, was the full magnitude of the disaster recognized.
News coverage of Hurricane Katrina dominated U.S. news during the last quarter of 2005. In the first few hours, reporters covered Katrina much as it would any other storm, concentrating on physical descriptions of damage to property and the handful of reported deaths. As the dimensions of the disaster emerged in the days following the hurricane, stories increasingly focused on survivors suffering and lack of response.
Debate in the media continued throughout September. The physical destruction along the Mississippi Coast, stories of deaths, thousands of displaced people, battles between insurance companies and homeowners, the economic impact of the storm and especially the continued failure of the government to adequately allocate resources for rebuilding New Orleans emerged as newsworthy stories.
This study examines the potential differences in local and national visual coverage of Katrina over the course of several weeks, with particular attention to visual news frames, sources used, themes, emotions portrayed, subjects depicted and size of images. It advances the visual analysis of news photographs by offering insight into how different media approach and interpret disasters through images. Further this study analyzes visual coverage before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. It thus explores the nature of photographic coverage and the different stages concerning one of the costliest natural disasters in the history of the United States.
A review of the literature suggests news coverage of disasters has increased in recent years. While it appears that the number of natural disasters has risen around the world, from approximately 250 in 1990 to about 450 in 2005,2 a more likely explanation is technological advances in newsgathering combined with the perceived need to fill news holes with more sensational stories-driven in many instances by competition from 24-hour cable news stations3-have resulted in increasing attention to disaster stories.
Hurricane Katrina on the Research Agenda
Hurricane Katrina captured the attention of several communication scholars who examined both visual and textual coverage.4 Dill and Wu,5 for example, used a textual approach, examining front-page newspaper content of two national, two regional and two local papers. They searched for variance related to topics, frames, sources and assignment of blame for damage and suffering among these papers. Among the most significant findings is that all papers turned most often to government officials. In addition, local and regional newspapers tended to cite rescue workers; whereas, national newspapers frequently cited academics. Topics and frames both focused on life, property and information needs and were similar at the local and regional levels. National papers, however, concentrated on broader reaching concerns. These findings supported past studies that found that local papers relied much less heavily on government and other official sources than did national newspapers. …