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As Hurricane Ian made landfall, devastating parts of Florida, South Carolina and the Caribbean, readers saw media images of destruction, rescue and recovery. The way such disasters are portrayed often places people in certain roles. New research from the University of Kansas shows that newspaper images of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 continue to portray people of color as victims and white people as saviors bringing order to chaos. Although these presentations may not have been deliberate or malicious, they reflect patterns in journalism and cultural values, according to the author of the study.


Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, and newspapers across the country devoted extensive coverage to the disaster. Ever Jasue Figueroa, Associate Professor of Journalism and mass communications at KU, watched the news like many others, but the Houston native noticed something about the presentation.

“I watched the report and was taking a course at the time visual communication. I thought, ‘I want to do something about what just happened,'” Figueroa said. “The main point of this article is to use an approach to image analysis called semiotics. Essentially, the premise is how we create and interpret visual images taken from things we understand and have seen before.’

For the study, Figueroa conducted a visual textual analysis of 106 front page images from August 28, 2017 to September 4, 2017. The results show media coverage presented people of color as displaced migrants, women as damsels in distress, and white men as saviors and guardians. The paper was published in the journal Critical Studies in Media Communication.

An analysis of the images on the front page showed that the coverage fell into four main themes.

  • People are in a flood
  • Shelters and rescue
  • Male heroes
  • Repair and maintenance of houses.

Among these themes, Figueroa noted that most of the photographs of people in floodwaters featured people of color wading through the water in an attempt to escape the devastation. The images are similar to photos circulated in the media of immigrants making their way through the waters of the Rio Grande River to cross into the United States, Figueroa said. But while people were forced from their homes in both cases, they highlighted how people were moving toward hurricane relief and hopefully a better life in terms of immigration.

The shelter and rescue theme tended to show people of color receiving help from shelter volunteers and staff. White people in shelters have been shown to express grief or emotional trauma but receive no financial assistance. Such images reinforce welfare narratives and arguments about who is eligible for assistance and who abuses such assistance.

“Everybody in these shelters pretty much went through the same things, but when we look at the coverage patterns, there was a distinct, racial component to them,” Figueroa said.

The theme of male heroes is reflected in images of men, mostly white, who rescue people, come to the aid of victims, and are in positions of authority, such as first responders or government officials. One image depicted a white man carrying a woman of color through a flood, while the woman carried a baby in her arms. The repeated use of these types of images reinforces patriarchal gender hierarchies for readers, Figueroa said.

The last topic was a presentation of people who are repairing their homes, cleaning up the damage or otherwise rebuilding and starting to rebuild after the destruction. However, most of the people in such images were white homeowners. The study found that Houston is a very diverse city, but that wasn’t necessarily reflected in how the images were presented.

“I would argue that there were racialized and gendered ways of representing people in these themes,” Figueroa said. β€œIt determines who is portrayed as the homeowner or who is portrayed as the victim. All of this echoes ideas about who controls or owns the land. Who is self-directed or dependent on others. It’s important to understand that news photos also tell a story, and over time they can perpetuate harmful cultural narratives and stereotypes of marginalized people and communities.”

Figueroa emphasized that he doesn’t blame photographers for covering storms and recovery, or first responders or government officials for helping people in need. Rather, he said that such representations have been occurring for years in American media and that they reflect our cultural values. Such racial and gendered presentations, however, are not only a continuation of what we are familiar with as a nation, but are likely the result of normalized working procedures in traditional journalism.

Journalists have long cooperated closely with government officials. This relationship results in the media often reaching out to police, fire, and emergency responders, as well as federal government agents working in situations such as natural disasterssimilar to how embedded military correspondents regularly present news from the perspective of the officials they are closest to.

However, there are potential ways to undo entrenched patterns, such as community response to such disasters, he said. Working with community members to find examples and submit material about neighbors helping neighbors or highlighting civic response can help dilute dominant themes. The idea of ​​”solidarity journalism,” or covering the lived experiences of people most affected by issues such as natural disasters, labor conflicts, or pandemics, to name a few examples, could help address the underlying themes of government response, economic impact, and other presentations of such topics. Journalists should focus on reporting the news from the perspective of people who suffer from unjust conditions, not from the perspective of authority figures, Figueroa said.

“The findings of this study suggest that people of color are still a spectacle, and their displacement served as a primary metaphor for Hurricane Harvey.” Marginalized people are represented as victims whose lives have been disrupted by natural disasters and who embark on journeys in search of salvation from authority figures,” Figueroa wrote in the article. “Marginalized groups should not be defined by their victimhood, but instead should be empowered to demonstrate their resilience and communal power. The time has come for the media to provide a better representation of the communities they cover, more truthful to the human experience in moments of crisis.”


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Additional information:
Ever Josue Figueroa, Casting Disaster Heroes and Victims: Representation of Race and Gender in Front-Page News Images of Hurricane Harvey, Critical Studies in Media Communication (2022). DOI: 10.1080/15295036.2022.2121412

Citation: Media coverage of hurricanes reinforces images of people of color as victims, study finds (October 11, 2022) Retrieved October 11, 2022, from https://phys.org/news/2022-10-media-coverage-hurricanes- images-people .html

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