Have you seen the two almost-identical AP photos making the rounds, one of a young black man wading through chest-high floodwaters trailing a bag of groceries, the other of a white couple doing the same? The first photo is captioned ” A young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store….” The second’s caption reads this way: “Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store….”
If you Google “looting finding food black white,” you’ll find at least the one million links that turned up when I did it this morning, evidence that the stark contrast in how we are asked to read these two images struck a sore spot in the culture. Several people have forwarded this to me, but the most recent I received seems the most powerful. The African American daughter of a white friend wrote this: “Dear Mom, This just makes my stomach hurt. Just in case we needed confirmation that racism is alive and well….”
On Tuesday, while I was driving around doing errands, I listened to an edition of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” featuring the network’s ombudsman and other media experts discussing the coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The first featured guest was Keith Woods, Reporting, Writing and Editing Group Leader at the Poynter Institute, which studies the media and trains reporters, providing (according to its motto) “Everything you need to be a better journalist.” Its mission statement is full of words like “excellence,” “integrity,” “informs” and “enlightens.”
Here is how Woods rationalized these two captions: “The truth of those images, though, was that the photojournalist who took the picture of the white people interviewed them, learned how they’d come to the food that they were carrying and tried to reflect accurately what happened. The photojournalist who took the picture of the black man coming out of the store with the garbage bag full of things from the store saw looting. The images I think were leapt upon because they, in fact–they fit what we expected in some ways of the media in its coverage of race and to a certain extent hit at a time when we were pretty angry as a nation about what was going on and that was just another thing to be angry about. But I think that they are a poor example of whether or not we have a racial problem in this city–or in this country.”
Oy! Let’s leave aside the blind spots in Woods’ remarks (\e.g.\, why were the white people interviewed and believed, but all that was necessary to condemn the black person was for the photojournalist to “see” looting?) and focus on the larger questions.
What is above all wrong with mainstream journalism in this country, and therefore with the way our omnipresent mass media train us to see the world, is all too evident from these few sentences. The expression “thinking outside the box” has become nauseatingly familiar, but from what I can see, most mainstream reporters seldom lift their heads over the edge of the box even to peer outside. Increasingly, they docilely accept the givens of a situation or problem, compliantly focusing on the trees without catching a glimpse of the forest. But the famous five Ws of journalism, “Who, What, Where, When and Why” don’t begin to cover the most important questions: What is happening beyond the immediate confines of this story, outside the frame of this picture? And how does that larger context affect the meaning of this single event?
Even if each of the AP photographs had been scientifically verified, providing unimpeachable witnesses to the veracity of both captions, that would do nothing to address the yawning wound they exposed and the reasons why they have been circulated so widely. Considering those questions would have necessitated searching outside the box. For instance, can anyone point to the opposite, the publication of two photos like these in which the white person was identified as looting and the black person as finding food? I haven’t seen it. What does that say about our media culture?
Reporters, of course, are famous for their contempt for readers’ intelligence, a stereotype their spontaneous remarks frequently confirm (\e.g.\, “just another thing to be angry about”). But given the figures on economic disparity, on living conditions, on access to resources that have emerged from the aftermath of Katrina, how intelligent is to suggest that “whether or not we have a racial problem in this city–or in this country” is still an open question?
As a longtime culture critic, I have had many opportunities to discuss media bias with members of the press. I have been impressed by their typical feeling of immunity from bias. Often they scoff at the idea of media owners dictating the tone or thrust of coverage: No one, they declare proudly, ever tells them what to write. Precisely my point: our mainstream media hire reporters who already share the required proclivities: deference to authority, narrow interest in the five Ws and an inclination to feel warm, cozy and right at home inside the box. This has nothing to do with demographics. Apologists cross lines of color and class: Keith Woods is African American.
Most of the million Google links for these two photos come from the blogosphere, which has become a synonym for “outside the box.” Granted, some of my fellow bloggers inhabit realms far beyond charted territory. But I like the fact that no matter how many times Woods and other media experts say, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” we’re all out here in virtual space drawing back the veils, pointing straight at the smoke and mirrors of racist rationalization.