UW News

September 25, 2008

How media covered Katrina aftermath affects response by blacks and whites

New research shows that black and white Americans responded differently when exposed to a video presentation that described Hurricane Katrina and then blamed the botched relief efforts on one of two causes: either government incompetence or racism, because the majority of Katrina’s victims were black.

“In laboratory experiments over the last decade, whites have tended to have negative reactions including negative emotions and attitudes towards minorities when racism was blamed for or cited as the reason for something. When Katrina happened it offered an opportunity to look at a real world problem that came into our living rooms and the belief system, or world view, that everyone has,” said Cheryl Kaiser, a UW assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the new study.

The study is noteworthy because, unlike previous research that looked at claims of discrimination, whites did not express outright negativity toward blacks. Instead it indicated that whites who were exposed to racial discrimination claims displayed strong positive attitudes toward whites rather than negative attitudes at blacks. Blacks tended to have less favorable attitudes toward whites after seeing the race-blame video than the government-incompetence video, but the difference was not significant. Blacks also showed strong positive attitudes toward blacks in both scenarios.

For the study Kaiser and her colleagues from Syracuse and Michigan State universities recruited 93 white and 60 black undergraduate college students. The majority in each group were women.

Each participant viewed the video presentation individually on a computer monitor equipped with headphones. All of the students watched a five-minute clip taken from a National Geographic program about the hurricane. Then the video content was divided into two experimental conditions.

In a race-blame condition, half the participants viewed a six-minute series of segments in which Katrina victims, public figures and journalists claimed that the government had responded slowly to the disaster because the majority of victims were black. The other participants saw a six-minute government-incompetence series of clips in which victims, public figures and journalists said government incompetence caused the ineffective disaster response. Then all of the participants viewed a three-minute slide show, consisting of 96 photographs, showing the physical damage and physical suffering caused by the hurricane.

After the video presentation, each participant filled out questionnaires that assessed their attachment to their own racial group and their attitudes toward blacks, whites and a number of filler groups such as teachers and politicians. In addition, they were asked to provide an explanation for the disaster response they recalled being made most often in the video they saw.

Kaiser said that media coverage that focused on racial explanations for the aftermath of Katrina did affect white Americans’ attitudes and could have potentially important consequences for intergroup relations.

“Our sense is some white Americans couldn’t understand the claims of racism and it was hard for them to think skin color was responsible for people surviving the hurricane and getting relief. This study helps us understand why discrimination claims make a large number of people in the U.S. uncomfortable. These claims act as a threat to the perceived fairness of our system and people who are at the top, generally white, want to maintain the status quo,” she said.

The paper, published in the current issue of the journal Social Justice Research, was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation. Co-authors are Collette Eccleston, an assistant psychology professor at Syracuse, and Nao Hagiwara, a psychology doctoral student at Michigan State.