In noting the approaching tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s ravaging of New Orleans, the New York Times chose to run with the race angle: “Racially Disparate Views of New Orleans’s Recovery After Hurricane Katrina” screams the headline. And the actual story starts off dramatically:
As the 10th anniversary approaches of Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic levee breaches in New Orleans, a new survey finds a stark racial divide in how residents here view the recovery.
Nearly four out of five white residents believe the city has mostly recovered, while nearly three out of five blacks say it has not, a division sustained over a variety of issues including the local economy, the state of schools and the quality of life.
But the facts don’t fit the narrative, and the story quickly falls apart. Readers who go below the first two paragraphs will discover that the big difference after Katrina is between people who live in neighborhoods that were deeply flooded, who have a less positive view of the recovery, and those who live in neighborhoods where the damage wasn’t as severe. This is hardly surprising. And it turns out that whites outside New Orleans, in parishes where the flooding was bad, are less positive about the recovery than New Orleans residents:
That the extent of the flooding is directly connected to the perception of recovery is also reflected outside New Orleans. The survey shows that people in neighboring Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes, both of which were predominantly white and were catastrophically flooded, have even dimmer views of the extent of recovery than the residents of New Orleans.
So it isn’t a black-white divide; it’s a flood damage divide, and whites as well as blacks fell on the wrong side of it.
A newspaper that wasn’t emotionally invested in peddling racial narratives would have seen another story here: not a story of unfair racial treatment, but a story of a city and a region struggling with an unprecedented catastrophe in which both races suffered depending on where they lived. This is bad journalism, though no doubt the Times editors responsible think they are doing the right thing.
It’s clear that there’s a full court press at the Gray Lady to focus on race these days. There’s nothing wrong with that; race remains a major issue in the U.S. But the hunger to fit facts to a narrative ultimately devalues the very concerns that the Times wants its readers to focus on. Good journalism certainly isn’t incompatible with a strong point of view. But far too often, the Times slips into bad advocacy journalism, using the journalistic equivalent of hamburger helper to bulk up a case that otherwise looks weak. That makes for both poor journalism and poor advocacy.
It’s hard to tell who exactly is at fault for the story’s framing, but credit does have to go to the writer who at least put together the real facts—enough so that a determined reader can work past the silly and misleading editorial spin.