Home / UPDATED: Katrina & the Media – Looting vs. Finding

UPDATED: Katrina & the Media – Looting vs. Finding

Please Share...Print this pageTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Tumblr0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

Color me devastated.

News reports tell us of the widespread looting that is going on in hurricane-ravaged areas hit by Katrina. Photos I have seen feature many dark-colored people running around with television sets and the like in their arms. The hues of the humans do not matter: Sixty-seven percent of New Orleans’ residents are assumed to be of African-American descent (though who knows for sure?), so it is logical that most of the poor stranded there would be brown-skinned. That so many pictured match that description isn’t the problem. What is horrifying to see is that in the midst of unspeakable tragedy, people trying to take advantage of the situation for personal gain. It’s disgusting: Stealing is wrong.

But something at least as horrifying is taking place as well. Of course, bigots are on the loose: Take a look at “white”-supremacist and anti-Semitic web sites that feature postings and comments thanking Hurricane Katrina for ridding the nation of people these sites consider undesirable and unfit to live. That doesn’t surprise me at all. But when such thinking seeps into the mainstream media, well, the result can crush a person’s soul.

The blog Booker Rising, which bills itself as a “news site for black moderates and black conservatives,” found something disturbing in mainstream coverage of the Katrina disaster.


This Associated Press photo is captioned thusly: “A young man walks through chest-deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005.”


Meanwhile, the above Agence France Press photo is captioned with a slight variation: “Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store after Hurricane Katrina came through the area in New Orleans, Louisiana.”

As Shay of Booker Rising notes, “Now all the folks involved have bags or backpacks, from their trip to grocery stores. So why the different coverage? I know, I know…”

My heart fell to my toes after viewing the pictures and reading the captions. I turned to Spousal Unit and fell into his arms, tears pouring from my eyes. It becomes germane here to note that I have some African ancestry and my skin is brown-colored. SU is Irish and has pinkish-colored skin.

“What’s wrong?” the spouse asked, suddenly concerned. I sat up, took a deep breath to center myself, and showed him the photos and captions.

“Oh my god,” he intoned.

“Imagine if you and I were in this situation,” I said. “You and I — poor, hungry, stranded — coming out of a grocery store, each with a loaf of bread and a bottle of Pepsi. They’d say that you had found food and that I had looted it.”

SU looked at me and we both sighed in despair.

“It’s a sick fuckin’ world,” the spouse said. “Imagine how many people see this sort of crap and don’t question it.”

Imagine, indeed. It appears this country has deeper issues than the havoc wrought by a natural disaster.

A day later, more light appears regarding this story. Yahoo News, inundated with complaints, released this statement:

News photos are an especially popular section of Yahoo! News. In part, this is because we present thousands of news photos from some of the leading news services, including The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France Press. To make this volume of photos available in a timely manner, we present the photos and their captions as written, edited and distributed by the news services with no additional editing at Yahoo! News.

In recent days, a number of readers of Yahoo! News have commented on differences in the language in two Hurricane Katrina-related photo captions (from two news services). Since the controversy began, the supplier of one of the photos � AFP � has asked all its clients to remove the photo from their databases. Yahoo! News has complied with the AFP request. …

Yahoo! News regrets that these photos and captions, viewed together, may have suggested a racial bias on our part. We remain committed to bringing our readers the full collection of photos as transmitted by our wire service partners.

Photographer Chris Graythen, who shot the picture of the “finders,” made a statement on the controversy (some already excerpted in the Blogcritics comments section) on SportsShooter.com (spelling his):

I wrote the caption about the two people who ‘found’ the items. I believed in my opinion, that they did simply find them, and not ‘looted’ them in the definition of the word. The people were swimming in chest deep water, and there were other people in the water, both white and black. I looked for the best picture. there were a million items floating in the water – we were right near a grocery store that had 5+ feet of water in it. it had no doors. the water was moving, and the stuff was floating away. These people were not ducking into a store and busting down windows to get electronics. They picked up bread and cokes that were floating in the water. They would have floated away anyhow. I wouldn’t have taken in, because I wouldn’t eat anything that’s been in that water. But I’m not homeless. (well, technically I am right now.)

I’m not trying to be politically correct. I’m don’t care if you are white or black. I spent 4 hours on a boat in my parent’s neighborhood shooting, and rescuing people, both black and white, dog and cat. I am a journalist, and a human being – and I see all as such. If you don’t belive me, you can look on Getty today and see the images I shot of real looting today, and you will see white and black people, and they were DEFINATELY looting. And I put that in the caption.

I do believe him. Graythen’s photos on Getty Images, along with his captions, treat all of his subjects with dignity. Take a look — his work paints a compelling picture of the goings-on in New Orleans.

Of course, Graythen wasn’t the one who labeled a subject as a looter.

Phone calls to the Associated Press regarding the photo of the brown-colored person bearing food have not yet been returned.

Questions remaining: Was this brown man really “looting”? Did the photographer opt to use the word “looting” as a nonjudgmental semantic choice? I will continue to investigate.

In the meantime, it appears that in this instance, the proximity of the photos and the captions triggered revulsion and despair. Obviously, it was unintentional. But the issues remain: The bigotry that exists in the US — covertly and otherwise — is a player in the Katrina tragedy. See the comments of “white’ supremacists. Read the words of those blaming the victims. Consider the attitiudes of rank-and-filers who equate “poor” with “bad” — and media outlets that make it appear that the heinous actions of a few (such as the repugnant stealing of appliances, shootings, and rapes) are representative of the whole and deserve a lion’s share of its coverage. (Prime example: Fox News reportedly has been giving major airtime to supposedly rampant chaos using an onscreen crawl reading, “Looters and Thugs.”)

As Washington Post columnist Terry Neal notes in his “Talking Points Live” online chat:

…[S]ome of the reporting on this has failed to differentiate from the relatively small number of people stealing TV’s out of Wall Mart [sic], and the number of people who are looting for food, diapers, shelter, etc. Nor does it accurately reflect the fact that most people are not involved in this type of foolishness.

I mean, the city of New Orleans is going to be shut down for months probably. If you have a starving baby, you just don’t know what you might do.

My comments should in no way be construed as condoning these idiots who are acting like Katrina was Santa Claus come early. They should be punished, and I’ll be happy when they get what’s coming to them.

But let’s have some level of empathy. People are starving, hot, desperate, crowded, smelling, dying. And I’m more worried about those people–the vast majority of whom are comporting themselves in stellar, civilized manner, considering the circumstances–than I am about the few buffoons carting off DVD players from the local Target.

Like it or not, the image emerging with the help of the mainstream media is that much of the Katrina problem is about “black looters.” This is an incorrect and unfair image, but that is the message being delivered through a variety of sources. Like it or not, there are lots of people who will have different thoughts if they see me walking through floodwaters clutching a loaf of bread or if they see Spousal Unit in the same situation. And yes, as the spouse says, it is sick.

Granted, pigmentationism — and that is what it is — poisoned this nation and this world long before Hurricane Katrina blew into the Gulf Coast. It should be no wonder that people already upset over the disaster would be touchy about adjacent photographs.

from all facts and opinions

Powered by

About NR Davis

  • My heart goes out to you, Ms. Davis. I understand where you are coming from. This is such a testament to a deeper problem we have within our society. I honestly wonder just how hard Americans will work to rescue these poor people once they realize that it’s the poor that are mostly affected. Corporation CEOs must be chomping at the bit with the prospect of developing waterfront commercial properties. Once the relief effort is properly underway and New Orleans is completely evacuated, then comes the rebuilding. What’s most important is rebuilding the lives of the displaced. While they don’t feel it right now, this is an opportunity for these poor people to lift themselves up and grab a second chance at life. This, of course, with God’s help and America’s promise.

  • Natalie, you know those of us here who can understand where you are coming from. You know what I mean. Hugs.

    My thought is that in a disaster like this (and it will probably be a politically incorrect thought) is that looting is when someone takes a tv or car or something, but food? How many people have no clothing and home after that? Good God, they deserve a loaf of bread and it will just go to waste sitting in a store that has 4 feet of water in the aisles.

  • Instead of just hearing an opinion about this, how about hearing about why the caption reads the way it does from the person who reportedly took the photograph. You can scroll down the link and look for a post by Chris Graythen. Here’s an excerpt:

    I wrote the caption about the two people who ‘found’ the items. I believed in my opinion, that they did simply find them, and not ‘looted’ them in the definition of the word. The people were swimming in chest deep water, and there were other people in the water, both white and black. I looked for the best picture. there were a million items floating in the water – we were right near a grocery store that had 5+ feet of water in it. it had no doors. the water was moving, and the stuff was floating away. These people were not ducking into a store and busting down windows to get electronics. They picked up bread and cokes that were floating in the water. They would have floated away anyhow. I wouldn’t have taken in, because I wouldn’t eat anything that’s been in that water. But I’m not homeless. (well, technically I am right now.)


  • I agree, Steve. Food, water, toiletries. Those are the essentials. These people have always had next to nothing. Now they’ve lost what little they had. People are dying down there. This is a horror. The government is doing the best they can but they have little control over the situation. Now is not the time to start assigning blame. We need to rescue these people and start them on the road to healing. Once that phase of the mission is completed, we can address the other concerns. I figure that by the time all is said and done, President Hillary Clinton will be inviting former President GW Bush to come down and stand in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner. That should be around 2011.

  • Steve, Silas (I hope you don’t mind; as with Steve, I have come to care for you greatly), thanks. I do know that you guys understand, and it is soooo appreciated.

  • I should have clarified that the caption in question I was writing about was the second one about people having just “found items”. Who knows who wrote the first one? My only aim in posting the info about the photographer of the second picture was to show that jumping to conclusions about possible racist intent in a couple of photo captions just seems like a stretch. It’s similar to the photo of the two NO cops from yesterday with one holding a handful of DVD’s which some were using to prove that cops were looting. Now there might be some cops doing so, but in the case of that photo it might have been a case of a police officer having just recovered some goods. Photos tell stories, but there are not always true.

  • NC

    Yahoo News doesn’t write the captions to the photos, Natalie. The individual agencies do. There might be racism here on the part of AFP, but AP and Yahoo are clean.

    Furthermore, it’s my understanding that the individual photographers often write the captions to their photos. It may be that the guy who took the pic of whites “finding” bread decided he didn’t like the word “looting” and wasn’t going to use it in any of his captions; other photogs from AFP might have thought differently. The only way to tell for sure if there was racism is to find out (a) who was responsible for writing the caption at AFP, and (b) did that person make distinctions based on race in writing other captions.

    Don’t jump to conclusions.

  • NC

    Just saw wally’s comment. That explains everything.

  • Mr. Wallybangs and Mr. NC, tomorrow I will attempt to phone all the parties involved and see what is true and what is not.

  • “My thought is that in a disaster like this (and it will probably be a politically incorrect thought) is that looting is when someone takes a tv or car or something, but food? How many people have no clothing and home after that? Good God, they deserve a loaf of bread and it will just go to waste sitting in a store that has 4 feet of water in the aisles.” ——-my thoughts exactly!!

    plus…I would think that if someone “found” a loaf of bread floating near a flooded grocery store, or if they waded into the store and took the food off the shelf, it is the same thing…neither one of them PAID for anything, nor have the means to at the moment. But they NEED food!!! So in this case, I wouldn’t call it looting…it’s surviving!

    Now, in the case of stealing appliances, etc..sure it’s wrong. But these are desprate time that would drive any and all of us to desprate actions. Not excusing it at all, but I think that the media and “holier than thou’s” need to relax and shut up about the whole issue, unless they are actually wading in the water in N.O., fishing for Wonder bread and whatever else the family memebers that made it can eat.

  • Mr. Wallybangs and Mr. NC, tomorrow I will attempt to phone all the parties involved and see what is true and what is not.

    I’m looking forward to hearing what you can find out.

  • “The results are not acceptable” – President George W. Bush, September 2, 2005

    Mr. President, you have told us the truth, thank you.

  • Even if the stories of “finding” food pans out, there is still the question of assumption. Could not the young black man have found his items as well? He’s carrying food and water, same as the others. It’s apparently easier to use the word “loot” when the person has dark skin.

    Frankly, I don’t care if he had to bust a window to get it, so that might color my opinion somewhat.

  • keith russell

    taking property that is not yours is considered stealing, but when things happen like this, the name of the game becomes survival. the goody to shoes that are talking the talk about what is right and wrong,are not walking in chest deep water, with no where to live or no food! until something drastic happens to you, don`t judge a person means to survive,shut the f–k up!

  • The essay has been updated.

    Found this interesting comment on Jim Romenesko’s blog on the Poynter journalism site:

    “I, too, have wondering about the use of the word ‘looting.’ When I saw the captions and read the verbs, I wondered where the editors were. Since neither caption gave any attribution – e.g- ‘the couple said they found the bread’ or the ‘young man said he found the bread’ – I assumed the words came from the photographer who probably shot with a long lens and couldn’t question the subjects. Given the lack of attribution, an editor should have rewritten the caption to say the people were knee deep in water with bread and food.”

  • I think anyone with a degree of humanity will agree on the following:

    – In a crisis of this magnitude, taking what you need, and busting windows of stores where the food would otherwise rot / go unused if necessary, is MORE than acceptable
    – The color of the skin of the people doing the above matters not at all

    Of course, it’s not an ideal world. And this crisis is anything but ideal.

    Ideal fucking tragedy is what it is.

  • Another comment from Romenesko, added to show that it isn’t just FOX stirring the pigmentationist pot:

    “From JERRY LANSON, journalism professor, Emerson College: …I was struck and alarmed yesterday by constant
    images on NBC TV and CNN of blacks in New Orleans who were depicted as looting stores. In some cases, these were mothers getting formula and diapers out of pharmacies that won’t open for weeks. If I were in New Orleans, my children were starving, my house destroyed, and my food and water gone, I would have done exactly the same. No one talked to these people. They simply characterized them.

    That is news reporting that presumes rather than covers and that plays into every negative stereotype promulgated by the news media for much of the last century. We owe viewers and readers better.”

  • Still no word from AP, but I have learned that the photo with the “looting” caption was taken by from Dave Martin at AP Photo, who ostensibly wrote his own caption. Don’t know yet if he interviewed the young man photographed.

  • It appears Kanye West is aware of this controversy… and he too is devastated.

  • mother of 3

    The media is criminalizing the starving and desperate masses of human beings. They are constantly calling them refugees and looters, rapist and murderers. There is an agenda to quell the outrage that is swelling by creating an image of the victims that invoke repulsions instead of empathy.

  • Here’s another ‘blame the victim’ story.

    An 18 year old steals a school bus to evacuate people and (quote) could be in a world of trouble for stealing (end quote).

    Is he a hero or thief? I vote hero and hope that someone starts up a legal defense fund for him if need be.


    (notice how the news story refers to the passengers as ‘renegade passengers’).

  • I’m with you on the legal defense fund, Steve. This kid isn’t a thug, he’s a leader. And, let’s face it, leaders are in short supply these days.

  • Fran W

    I have watched from day one the trajedy of Katrina and the devastation she has brought to the people of Louisiana and Mississippi. I do not understand AT ALL how we could wait so long to give the survivors food, water and the necessities to survive. I completely understand people going into the supermarkets to get those items to survive. The more I watched the media and the stories, the more obvious it became (to me anyways) that this was based on skin color and economic standing….and to hear the media calling them refugees? They are citizens of our ‘WONDERFUL’ country, that either did not have money to get out or thought that they could “ride out the storm”. We knew that the storm was coming…why did we not send the military ships to be there as soon as storm was over? Why was there no food? What we should have done is pull our troops from Iraq to help with this trajedy and to help rebuild the region. I think the Federal Government completely dropped the ball.

  • Pauline McVey

    And now it appears that speaking about this on an all american fund raiser, warrents an attack. Suggestions that the speaker is unpatriotic, and in fact a part of the problem. The spin doctors are working over time — NBC shame on you — Kanye West don’t stop there!

  • kittygogo

    I also don’t understand why the media is even caring about looters. Who cares if people steal DVD players and plasma screen TVs (I would expand on how our materialistic society has created this illogical thirst for status in things, but that is off-point)? Yeah, it’s wrong to steal, but where are these people going to use this stuff? Are the businesses they belonged to going to come back and sell all of their wares right off the shelf now? Are the insurance companies going to go broke because of a few looters? Who are the real thiefs, the poor people who our government left stranded to die in N.O. or is it our govt who takes our money and spends it on their concocted war in Iraq, while watching Americans die and lying about troops and help coming in for days on end? (not to get off-subject again, but can someone please tell me, WHY AND/OR WHO ARE WE FIGHTING IN IRAQ??)

    Media, leave the looters and the victims of NO alone and concentrate on your obvious disgust as to why YOU were at the convention center and in the city and our govt was not. Over and over again, throughout this horror show even FOX news was aghast that they were freely able to get in and out of the area, but the people of NO were not allowed to leave and the govt would not come in and help. There were SO MANY mistakes needlessly made, that to concentrate on this petty issue, it waters down the real issue. PLEASE let go of the thugs and looters, that is small time problems. We need big time solutions.

  • Ms. McVey, conform or die, that’s the American way…

    Steve, I vote hero. I love this: Chicago offers aid, FEMA says no. Other organizations offer help, FEMA says no. Other nations offer assistance, the feds say “We’ll see.” And then the Navy hires Halliburton’s KBR subsidiary to handle power restoration. Hmmm…

  • Tito

    Please buy a clue. The photographer of the looter SAW him enter a store and loot, the other photographer witnessed the people collecting items that were found floating by in the water, hence the found caption. Clearly different situations.

    Now that the rest of the story is known all those who rushed to cry racism look appropriately stupid…

  • >>And then the Navy hires Halliburton’s KBR subsidiary to handle power restoration.<< Indeed, damn them for hiring the most experienced and best qualified people for the vital job. Dave

  • SarahMiami

    Why doesn’t this surprise me? Racism is alive and well in America. It never really died, tho things had improved a bit, and kept improving (slowly, but improving) under Democrats. Since Reagan (with the Republican Party pretty much controlling either the White House, the Congress, or both), racism seems to have become okay again. They give racists that warm and fuzzy permission to feel completely free to be racists. America the Beautiful, eh?

  • steve

    under democRATS? that is why new orleans looks like a third world country when you turn the news on. I thought I was looking at Angola before I read the subtitles. this Katrina event has really opened my eyes as to how poor america is in the south. Regardless, the racist democrats have kept african-americans in their living conditions for 50 years. they count on the black vote. they take it for granted.

    why do you think nagin changed parties? he is a former conservative. hell, if I were making 400k a year…I would be conservative too! wouldnt want half of my check to POOF! vanish into thin air.

  • steve

    wake up African-americans. open your eyes. notice who the real “white men keepin’ you down” are!!!

  • You know, Steve. This situation in New Orleans might be the key event which will finally make the black population come to its senses about the democrats and their policies of political serfdom. Hard though they’re trying to spin all of this to target Bush, the voices of the people of New Orleans and their dissatisfaction with Nagin and his political machine are coming through loud and clear.


  • Sally Hammond

    I just wonder why the media did not make a fuss out of the FBI agents that “looted” after the 9/11 tragedy. They stole items from dead bodies. Why was nobody having a fit about that.

  • Revelation Concerning The over populized
    Looting vs. Finding Food supplies.
    What it all comes down to is the media praying upon this whole rasist craze. What’s important to remember is that the media has capitalized on this perception, and that racism sells stories. At first every one WHITE OR BLACK was considered to be looting because lets face it, this kind of thing has stirred memories of prior disasters where people did not have to loot out of necessity. However the story took a complete 180 degrees when FEMA did not respond right away and quickly the reports turned from theres looting, to these people white or black are trying to survive. If we can perceive in this context than we don’t need to bring Ethnicity into it. So in my opinion none of the stories do anything to help either situation. Media needs to stop promoting racism when it’s job is to cover the events in a unbiased way. Let me assure people that if we continue to let this kind of reporting happen, we will only be creating a larger problem to deal with. Timing of these events is really to blame. Lets me reiterate, At first the widespread issue of supplies not being delivered was not as apparent, so any story at that time would reflect taking supplies as looting. Its unfortunate there wasn’t a white looter covered the first time, to disspell any hurting egos from blaming race. Lets put our own heads back on people, the medias job is publicity and if the race card continues to be a powerful allie their going to use it. If minorities become more sensitive to this kind of news and actually believe it, than were losing a battle here in America.
    I’m very concerned with the directon of these events, Please send this to any one who may need an unbiased opinion, It could start to change peoples minds in a positive way.
    Sincerely Bryce K

  • Jim

    In all my 58 years, I have never witnessed a full can of coke “float”.

  • Sally, that’s an excellent question. I was disgusted when I saw that and found that more offensive than any “looting” post-Katrina.

  • tito you stupid fuck!

    i dont give a good damn whether that black man got the food from the street,the store, or the crack of his ass. he got food, obviously. it came from a store, yes. the other white couple also got foot. if they were seen collecting it, it also floated from a store. the same way that if the black guy had seen food just floating buy, im sure he would have collected that too. whether he did or he didnt i dont know. but he may have kids to feed, elders, brothers, sisters, and himself. what the hell is looting anyway when people no longer have belongings. the food is wasted and no longer belongs to anyone. so are you telling me that if your ass was hungry, you wouldnt go into a store and get yourself so food, which has been untouched and uncomtaminated? if you would pass that up, then you are a damn fool. and if you are feeding into that “right is right and wrong is wrong” bullshit, you are just as stuck under a damn rock as your president-man. either you have been brainwashed, are blind, or are racist yourself. thanks for your comments anyway.

  • J. Miller

    I hope you don’t mind — I am distributing this article to my students as an example of media criticism.


  • No problemo. Always glad to help out in the arena of education.

  • TK

    The captions are correct. They loot, we find.