Looting? or Surviving?

The Looting Lie

In the wake of Haiti’s earthquake, the media is widely reporting stories of looting. Didn’t they learn anything after Hurricane Katrina?

By Cord Jefferson
January 15, 2010

A sign that went up in the days following Hurricane Katrina. Tales of looting in New Orleans were proved to be greatly exaggerated. (Flickr/Sir:Poseyal)

It’s been three days since an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale devastated the small island nation of Haiti, leaving tens of thousands dead and many survivors homeless. Sadly, the images and stories emerging from the disaster—including dead children and aid shortages—are all too reminiscent of those that followed Hurricane Katrina. So is an unfortunate media talking point: looting.

Already, tales of “machete wielding gangs” looting Haiti’s rubble are widespread, from news outlets on the left and the right. Similar stories surfaced after Hurricane Katrina, but we now know of a large body of evidence proving that the media greatly exaggerated reports of post-Katrina New Orleans being overrun with violence and theft.

To discuss this troubling media phenomenon, and to better understand what happens in the immediate fallout of massive natural disasters, Campus Progress spoke with Dr. Kathleen Tierney, professor of sociology and behavioral science and director of the Natural Hazard Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Campus Progress: Can you give some background on the history of disaster reporting?

Kathleen Tierney: Social scientists began studying disasters in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A lot of this research was sponsored by the military and defense establishment, and the kinds of things they wanted to know about were related to nuclear war. They wanted to know how people would behave if Russia dropped the bomb on us—would they panic; would they engage in criminal behavior; would they engage in antisocial behavior; would they be able to pick themselves up and rebuild society? So, from the very beginning, researchers put a lot of emphasis on crime, deviance, looting—that sort of behavior—because that’s what their funders cared about. And there was a lot of field work done in disasters, where researchers go out in disaster areas and take a look at what’s happening.

And what did the early research discover?

If you go back to the 1950s and you look at some of those writings, a lot of it’s about disaster myths—what people say happens in disasters versus what really happens. What these researchers discovered was that the media—even way back in the 1950s and 1960s—approached huge disasters with certain frames. When the media reports on disasters, they’re inevitably going to focus on the dramatic and antisocial, even if it’s one percent of the population committing these acts. And even back then, the looting myth always came to the fore of media reports.

As it has in Haiti.

Yes. For example, the day after this earthquake in Haiti, it was reported that a prison had collapsed and prisoners had gotten away—the presumption being that they had escaped to go and loot. The prisoners didn’t go to check on their mothers or their sisters, they went to loot. And we presumably know this, because they’re bad people, they’re criminals. The bad people frame reached its nadir with Katrina.

Do you think that because the victims of both Haiti and Katrina were poor and black, the media approached the stories with a certain perspective?

Definitely. There is an institutionalized racism in the way these poor black disaster victims are treated. The victims of Katrina were treated with so much presumption, as if you could assume they were going to loot, because they were black. Just like we know that the people in Haiti are bad because they’re black. Black men especially are demonized. During Katrina, the media picked up on every rumor—whether it was raped 4-year-olds in the Superdome or people shooting each other. Actually, for a paper me and a couple of my graduate students wrote called “Metaphors Matter,” we found some transcripts of TV programs in which members of the media expressed regret. They were saying, “We really blew it during Katrina; we acted on all of these rumors.” I myself was on Jim Lehrer’s show, where they were asking about the looting [in Katrina], and I got into it with a police officer, and he ended up agreeing with me that it was a myth. It’s not real. I thought the media would have learned something after Katrina, but evidently they haven’t. Here we go again.

One article I was reading reported that people were “stealing rice.” And I thought, even if these people were prepared to pay money for that rice, how would they? I’m sure the store owners are gone trying to help their families. I’m sure the electricity is down, meaning cash registers may not be working properly.

I think there are two things that are important to emphasize: The first is that when we look at footage of someone carrying something around or taking something, it is impossible to know the circumstances under which they got those things. Is it their stuff that they’re carrying? Did someone give them something? Did a store owner say, “Go to my store and take some stuff, because what good is it to me now? Money is meaningless for now.”

I mean, perhaps these so-called looters left money at the counter for the rice. A greater question is why are people so quick to demonize people who are living in abject poverty, people whose everyday life is a disaster. And now that they’ve experienced a new catastrophe, why are we focusing on this? It’s incomprehensible to me. The way that highfalutin academics talk about it is that there are changes in societal norms about property in very, very severe disasters. For example, I was watching CNN, and there was a CNN reporter that was talking about a Haitian hotel that brought a hose out for people to take water from if they came by. Were those people looting water? I’d say no. The norms changed. What if people are together in a group and they decide that they need to go get some rice. Is it looting to get rice and feed your family in desperate situations? No. It’s a new norm developing in the midst of a very extreme situation.

And perhaps we shouldn’t care if they are stealing. I think I might do the same in such a scenario.

Exactly. And that store from which you steal rice could collapse tomorrow, because of aftershocks. And then what do we have? A whole bunch of wasted food that could have been used for good. What if you didn’t know if help was coming? What if you were starving? I have no idea why it’s so hard for the viewers and the media to put themselves in these situations. This is an absolute low point in disaster reporting. This is as low as you can get without being Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson. So if these media organizations want to descend to that level, at some point they have to be held accountable.

When is it appropriate for a news organization to call what’s happening in a disaster “looting”?

Why don’t they just call it surviving? Appropriating goods to survive, maybe. Otherwise, it’s just victim blaming. It’s picking on the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere, who also happen to be black.

And what’s to be said of the people you see in these disaster areas who aren’t taking rice, but instead taking TVs and DVD players?

Again, norms of various kinds emerge in disaster situations, sometimes antisocial norms. But to report these incidents as if they’re common—without nuance—it’s a departure from journalistic integrity, and they should be called out on it. I’ve seen these Twitter postings saying, “We’re all Haitains.” And the thing is, no, we’re not all Haitians, and to say that is offensive. It is impossible for those of us in the United States to understand what it’s like to live in Haiti, and to pretend that we do, especially with such lazy journalism, is wrong.

Cord Jefferson is an associate editor at Campus Progress.