The recent devastation from Hurricane Irene has left the nation in a state of shock. As expected, the mass media documented the disaster with HD-enhanced coverage of death tolls, interactive maps and interviews with crestfallen victims.
But corporate media’s narration of the incident as an inexplicable tragedy represents a one-dimensional approach to storytelling. We too often forget that disasters are not just random acts of extreme weather. They are also illustrations of the consequences disadvantaged communities endure in dire circumstances.
When the media refuses to differentiate those who are significantly impacted by harsh storms, we undermine the extent to which paltry public investment exacerbates disasters and determines who suffers the most.
In May, a category E-5 tornado ravaged the small city of Joplin, Miss., and killed 160 residents. Alabama and Mississippi witnessed equally horrific tornadoes earlier this year that left hundreds dead. While all residents of these storm areas were subject to the prodigious fury of the tornadoes, many who were killed lived in poorer parts of the states.
The Alabama Rural Ministry reported that 32 of the 38 counties struck the hardest by the string of nasty twisters in Alabama had above-U.S. average poverty rates. Low-quality housing does not suffice as a tornado shelter, and those who had less access to adequate housing and resources suffered the most casualties.
Many Hurricane Katrina victims were also from poor areas whose underfunded pumps and levee systems caved in. As stated by The Washington Times, the U.S. poverty rate has reached a 15-year high of 43 million people. This demands a reorganization of resources to ensure that those who lack shelter and mobility survive in catastrophic weather.
Disasters don’t act independently of the structural barriers in which people live. Sure, they lack the psychological capacity to select victims, but stripping public investment and institutions of funding makes crippled communities even more vulnerable.
The media plays a dangerous role when constantly couching storms with language in awe of “random” Mother Nature. There’s nothing “natural” about poverty and its ramifications.
Without media that dissects how poverty exposes certain people to more damage, our perspective is skewed and deprived of analysis. By ignoring man-made elements of “natural” disasters, we can’t curb destruction. Americans shouldn’t die because they can’t afford to take cover.
Chris Zivalich is a senior journalism major. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.