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Was Katrina A “Natural” Or “Man-Made” Disaster? New York Times Ombudsman Says Maybe Just Call It A “Disaster”

May 16th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Also today in the New York Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt raised a wording question that has both journalistic and policy implications when it comes to disasters. As part of the column, “Semantic Minefields,” Hoyt wrote about a petition organized by Sandy Rosenthal of New Orleans asking the Times “to issue a style memo requiring that news articles use ‘man-made disaster,’ not ‘natural disaster,’ when referring to Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans.” The column continues:

Rosenthal, a co-founder of the advocacy group, told me that had the Army Corps of Engineers designed and built the levees in New Orleans properly, there would have been minor flooding, not the deluge that killed some 1,800 people. She said that describing Katrina as a natural disaster suggests that nobody has to be held accountable and relieves the urgency for fixes.

The article that set off the petition effort — a “White House Memo” by Helene Cooper about President Obama’s response to the big oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico — called Katrina a natural disaster but said nothing about New Orleans. However you want to define what happened in that city, the hurricane certainly was a natural disaster for residents further east, along the Mississippi coast.

But in other articles, The Times has said Katrina “devastated” New Orleans, and used other similar language. Philip Corbett, the standards editor, said, “We have repeatedly in our coverage over years dealt in great detail with all the factors that led to the catastrophe in New Orleans.” Readers, he said, “will understand you are talking about the whole event: the natural disaster that was the hurricane and the various problems, man-made, and the government response that exacerbated the problems.”

Corbett will not issue the edict Rosenthal seeks, and I don’t think he should. Joseph Treaster, now a professor at the University of Miami, was a Times reporter who was in New Orleans when Katrina hit. He said that mistakes by people made things worse, but, “No hurricane, no damage.”

Like it or not, “Katrina” has become shorthand for a lot: the hurricane itself, the failed levees, the neglect that followed. Maybe the Times should just call it a “disaster,” without modifiers, and be as specific as possible when needed.

Sounds like a pretty good compromise. Though this might just seem like a matter of words, in the disaster field language matters a lot. In fact, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has put an emphasis on redefining disaster related words. One example is that FEMA no longer talks about “victims” but instead “survivors”. More relevant to the ombudsman’s column is that Fugate has also spoken about substituting “natural hazards” for “natural disaster” in the public and media crisis lexicon. The point is that hazards are often not the cause of accelerating the seriousness of  disasters, but rather it is either ‘man-made error/decisions (ie. that Americans have built and live in vulnerable areas).

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Tags: Media

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