Phrasing Katrina: Reflections on an (un)Natural Disaster (Part 5)

Consider the professional norms, or ‘games’ that determine the news and the well documented patterns for covering disasters and emergency situations. Journalists tend to structure their stories through ‘frames’, interpersonal structures that shape what we see and how we see it. Such professional frames portray the world in a certain way, often ignoring phenomena that don’t fit and focusing on things that do. It has been noted that at times “frames trump facts”. The colorblindness discussed in earlier posts might be understood as one of the frames that contemporary journalists report through, causing the narratives they produce to function as if race were not a factor.

In a study of how the media framed the events of hurricane’s Katrina and Rita, Miles and Morse describe the construction of narratives and sub-narratives.  They write about “media narratives as semantic frames that provide an overall conceptual structure defining the semantic relationships among whole ‘fields’ of related concepts and the words to express them”. The framing of events, they claim, involves “selecting some aspects of a perceived reality and mak[ing] them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.”

There is a curious quote from CBS’ Marcy McGinnis in the Washington Post on August 31st 2005: “we [journalists] never thought the story would turn into what it did”. She speaks as if the world were expected to conform to a certain story arc. McGinnis first and foremost, recognizes Katrina as a ‘story’. In this case, it is a story that has become something requiring different modes of representation, forcing journalists to go outside their professional norms and routines, play outside the rules of the game, and consider new frames. One of the effects of this is that journalists discovered a “new found aggression and recovered their snarl”. Shepherd Smith’s awkward pauses on Hannity and Colmes, the ferocious questions leveled at FEMA (a part of the US Federal government), and the uncustomary emphasis on racial or class inequality may demonstrate something deeper at issue than Katrina’s intensity. We almost can see the sketching of a new set of frames, or at least the old ones functioning differently.

The sources that once were relied on to supply the frame with its objectivity no longer matched up with what was transpiring on the ground. This provided the individual reporter the ability to turn the frame from one of ‘objectivity’ via official sources to a more immediate and personal one. As Frank Durham writes in Exposed by Katrina: The Gulf between the President and the Press:

“As the days passed and the coverage continued, it became clear that the hurricane’s fury had done more than destroy the area; it had exposed a gap between the national press and its erstwhile official sources” and the “the Bush news management apparatus could do nothing [about it]…Journalists who could see the bodies refused to accept ‘factuality’ from Michael Brown, Michael Chertoff, or even George Bush. Ted Koppel and Paula Zahn all but screamed “bullshit!” at them on camera.”

Journalists adopted alternative ways of articulating Katrina. The dominant discourse may not have be adequate to describe the society that Katrina’s devastation presented them with.

This is akin to the Kuhnian moment prior to a scientific-revolution where scientists cannot find a solution to a problem within the paradigmatic framework they are working with. Either strategies are developed to solve the problem and it becomes an ‘anomaly’ or new ways of dealing with it are developed or adopted.

(note: Kuhn claims that in the history of science there are periods of ‘normal science’ and periods of ‘extraordinary science’. In the former, he likens scientists to ‘puzzle solvers’ who know and abide by the rules of the paradigm. In the later, he claims scientists become aware of the limitations of their paradigm and sense an oncoming crisis. It is integral to note that for Kuhn (and Lyotard for that matter) a new paradigm replaces an older one not because it offers a more ontologically correct version of reality, but for largely social factors. Different paradigms offer differing languages for describing the natural world. Each new paradigm does not symbolize a progression in a teleological fashion toward some final ultimate paradigm. When a paradigm becomes unstable and begins to give way to ‘extraordinary science’ it is a sign that the language being used to describe the world is being exchanged for another. Kuhn writes:

“sometimes an anomaly will clearly call into question explicit and fundamental generalizations of the paradigm, as the problem with ether drag did for those who accepted Maxwell’s theory…When an anomaly comes to seem more than just another puzzle of normal science, the transition to crisis and to extraordinary science has begun.”

If a revolution does occur, the scientific tradition that emerges is not only incompatible but often is incommensurable with that which has gone before.

To clarify. I am suggesting that journalism may have went into a sort of crisis-mode akin to Kuhn’s conception of ‘exceptional science’ during the week of August 31, 2005. Its paradigmatic framework, that is, its underlying assumptions, sources, ideas of ‘objectivity’, narratives and frames appeared highly unstable. The sorts of dialogues between journalists on the ground in New Orleans, traumatized by the revelatory brokenness cast by the (un)natural disaster, and their counterparts in the studio often insistent on remaining partisan and racially colourblind, demonstrate this instability.

For a short time, journalists were playing ‘outside the rules of the game’, demonstrating, consciously or unconsciously, that there are divergent phraseologies and narratives.  But if, as Kuhn claims, (“…crisis loosens the rules of normal puzzle-solving in ways that ultimately permit a new paradigm to emerge.”) these are signs of the inadequacy of a paradigm, three questions arise: (1) what is the nature of these divergent phraseologies and narratives, (2) what strategies were developed or used to avoid an oncoming crisis, and (3) are there effects of this crisis that evaded these strategies and linger both in the practice of journalism and in the consciousness of the viewers who watched and read about Katrina? We will focus our attention on these difficult questions for the remainder of the essay.

To answer these questions we turn to a passage in Kuhn’s book where he writes:

“such explicit recognitions of breakdown are extremely rare” and “all crises end in one of three ways: Sometimes normal science ultimately proves able to handle the crisis provoking problem despite the despair of those who have seen it as the end of an existing paradigm. On other occasions the problem resists even apparently radical new approaches…. The problem is labeled and set aside for future generations with more developed tools. Or finally, a crisis may end with emergence of a new candidate for paradigm and with the ensuing battle over its acceptance.”

Perhaps then, the “doxa”, in Bourdieu’s words, was deeply rooted enough that the practice of journalism was capable of handling the crisis provoking problem in spite of the journalists whose accounts defy being grounded in it. In this context, the journalistic field’s dominant principles of “vision and division” were able to withstand the crisis. Bourdieu’s conception of doxa, deeply rooted and defining reality, is similar to Lyotard and Kuhn’s notion of constructed ‘paradigms’ or ‘phraseologies’. This is made even more apparent when Bourdieu claims that the doxa is comprised of socially constructed Kantian categories, categories that are not innate or internal to the subject (as they are in Kant’s conception) but contingent on the world. Those in power, Bourdieu argues, try to make the doxa and underlying principles of vision and division innate. This is the case for Kuhn when the adherents to an older paradigm refuse to accept a new one. It is the case for Lyotard when one party in a debate believes their phraseology to be the only correct one possible.

Bourdieu notes that changes in the world can come to affect a field’s doxa. During Katrina there were certainly changes made to the city of New Orleans. Might these changes have affected the journalistic field’s doxa, and in doing so affect the frames the field uses and the narratives these frames spawn? Did the (un)natural disaster reconstitute one of America’s major cities, revealing race and poverty that were invisible and taboo based upon the prior journalistic doxa?

John Harris argues that Katrina represents a rupture in the frame of colorblindness and the racial-progress narratives (These types of narratives are based on the assumptions that racism is a thing of the past, that it is only bigots who are racist, and that racism is generally accepted as intolerable.) which have tended to obscure blacks from discussion in the media. During Katrina, journalists not only recognized race, but asserted that blacks were “innocent victims [and indeed] had a legitimate claim on the nation-state”.

Events like Katrina push up against the dominant frames and can temporarily displace them. In much of the Katrina coverage we do find a racially oriented narrative, but one that treats race differently than it had been in Galveston in 1900. Race was now explicit, but in a different set of historical conditions and under a different guise. (Let’s be frank. it did still possess the residues of the past (i.e. looting and finding) with its hyperbolic reports of “the animalistic state” within the Superdome. We did find, what Harris calls, the ‘law and order frame’ of black criminality.) We found a new set of frames emerging, where blacks are explicitly represented as citizens of the state and worthy of our duty to care, countering the age old racist frames of inherent black criminality and simple racist colorblindness. On September 2nd, 2005 the New York Times and The Washington Post both carried front page stories claiming that the victims of the storm were largely poor and minorities.

By the 5th of September it was clear that something was not only different with the style of reporting but with the actual effects Katrina had on journalists. The Washington Post, USA Today and SF Gate, ran stories about the troubles journalists were facing in New Orleans. The feelings and emotions of individual journalists were worked into the stories, including a newfound adversarial stance and an uncommon degree of clarity. Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post wrote “journalism seems to have recovered its reason for being”. It is perhaps no coincidence that, as we noted above, articles began emphasizing that most of the victims of the storm were black and poor. On September, 5 an article on Slate Media commends journalists: “For once, reporters were acting like concerned citizens, not passive observers. And they were letting their emotions show” – an activist stance. Donald Smith, summarizes this sentiment, writing: “As news teams struggled to address the situation they had to negotiate a complex communication environment fraught with difficulties and one which differed from the familiar patterns of the past. No one could say ‘Were not wholly sure what happened,’ because every news source and viewer did know”.

Critics have noted that since Katrina we have seen a return to the traditional frames, which tend to bolster a rather conservative agenda. Harris argues that “As a nation we barely talk about race and Katrina anymore. It is almost unspeakable to do so”.

This leads us to consider our second question: What strategies were developed or used to avoid an oncoming crisis? What rectified the crisis and how did it happen? Kellner suggests an answer lies in a study of the American corporate media: “Once the crisis point had passed, most TV journalists went back to business-as-usual, their choke chains yanked by no-longer-attentive parent-company bosses who, fearful of fallout from fingering Dubya for the FEMA fuck-up, decided yet again to sacrifice community for corporate greed”. We can point out Kuhn’s assertion that during a stage of ‘exceptional science’, though scientists “may begin to loose faith and then to consider alternatives, they do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis”. One reason for this is because the social conditions have not yet provided a viable replacement for the crisis-laden paradigm. Katrina has demonstrated to us that journalists could be constructing and positing viable alternatives to move beyond a simple ‘extraordinary journalism’ to a ‘revolutionary one’ where journalists do renounce the paradigm that led them into crisis.

John Harris claims that race and poverty was pushed into the foreground by Katrina. We ask ‘what does it mean for something to be “pushed into the foreground by Katrina’s destruction”? If, as I have been arguing, the storm is not natural but (un)natural, then hybrid conditions, built up over time by both human beings and the hand of chance, pushed it to the foreground. We might even say that the system itself can push certain things into the foreground. When the color of our televisions is so vibrantly red, we all in a sense become epileptics and, in one way or another, go into shock. We, as audience, are shocked out of accepting the usual frames and types of narration in the same way that the journalists who normally utilize them recognize their radical inadequacy. The clarity of our television sets, with their increasingly brighter colors and sharper lines help to induce this shock, making it as impossible for the viewer to ignore the question of colour as it is for the journalists on the ground. This may help us understand the decline in George W. Bush’s approval ratings after Katrina, ratings that dropped well into his last days in office…

Are there effects of this crisis that evaded strategies to suppress it which linger both in the practice of journalism and in the consciousness of the viewers who watched and read about Katrina?’ Certainly I am not claiming that there has been a break with the old ‘frames’: as Kuhn argues “…new paradigms are born from old ones, they incorporate much of the vocabulary and apparatus that the traditional paradigm had previously employed, though these elements are employed in different ways.” The problems raised by Katrina have, to a large extent, been set aside and put out of the spotlight. Did the crisis on the week of August the 31st, 2005 end with emergence of a new candidate for a journalistic paradigm, and if so, can we foresee an ensuing battle over its acceptance?

While we will never settle upon a final mode of narration, we can continue to theorize on the impacts that revelatory catastrophic events like Katrina have on our modes of communication. I have argued that the effects of these impacts on journalists in the week following the storm signified a potential break with their frames and entrenched paradigms, leading them to adopt forms of narration and phraseologies that allowed them express themselves more freely. We must never forget that the contingency of language and the ability to speak differently, in different differends, is our only real line on defense against a paradigm or ideology becoming rigid and naturalized. The case of Katrina reminds us not only that there are different ways of speaking, but that revolutions between paradigms can occur.  While we can never be free from ideology, it does not hurt to look to anomalies like Katrina in order to remind ourselves that ideologies are always at risk of being replaced by newer and less confining ones.


~ by dccohen on April 23, 2010.

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