Debunking the Idea That Race Attitudes Explain the Famous Katrina Captions Showing a White Person “Finding” Items and a Black Person “Looting” Them
Ken from Popehat, who has helped me greatly in my life and whom I respect deeply, recently posted the following tweet:
My son is studying Hurricane Katrina in social studies. I showed him this and asked him to explain the difference… pic.twitter.com/VX5TlKDP4N
— Popehat (@Popehat) November 25, 2013
Somewhere in the back of my head, I had a memory that this example of racism was not all it was cracked up to be. Turns out my memory was right: there is a race-neutral explanation for the differing captions. I don’t think I ever posted on this before, and since the perception obviously persists that the difference in the captions is due to attitudes on race, I thought I would do a post about it — even though it is eight years later.
It’s never too late to help debunk a persistent misperception.
Surprisingly, I found the source materials I needed at Snopes.com. Even more surprisingly, the debunking of this episode as racism comes in part from an article at Salon.com. (The other half of the debunking is from an online forum for sports photographers.)
Regarding the caption that accused someone of “looting,” we learn that the photographer saw the person take the goods from the shop:
Jack Stokes, AP’s director of media relations, confirmed today that Martin says he witnessed the people in his images looting a grocery store. “He saw the person go into the shop and take the goods,” Stokes said, “and that’s why he wrote ‘looting’ in the caption.”
Regarding the photo by Chris Graythen whose caption said someone had “found” the items they were carrying, the photographer did not see the person take the goods from the shop. Here is the photographer, Chris Graythen, talking about his observations on a photographers’ forum:
I wrote the caption about the two people who ‘found’ the items. I believed in my opinion, that they did simply find them, and not ‘looted’ them in the definition of the word. The people were swimming in chest deep water, and there were other people in the water, both white and black. I looked for the best picture. there were a million items floating in the water – we were right near a grocery store that had 5+ feet of water in it. it had no doors. the water was moving, and the stuff was floating away. These people were not ducking into a store and busting down windows to get electronics. They picked up bread and cokes that were floating in the water. They would have floated away anyhow. I wouldn’t have taken in, because I wouldn’t eat anything that’s been in that water. But I’m not homeless. (well, technically I am right now.)
I’m not trying to be politically correct. I’m don’t care if you are white or black. I spent 4 hours on a boat in my parent’s neighborhood shooting [he means “taking photos of” — Ed.], and rescuing people, both black and white, dog and cat. I am a journalist, and a human being – and I see all as such. If you don’t belive me, you can look on Getty today and see the images I shot of real looting today, and you will see white and black people, and they were DEFINATELY looting. And I put that in the caption.
According to the Salon article, the AP had a policy that action was described as looting only if a reporter or photographer saw people taking the goods from a business:
Santiago Lyon, AP’s director of photography, told Salon that all captions are vetted by editors and are the result of a dialogue between editor and photographer. Lyon said AP’s policy is that each photographer can describe only what he or she actually sees. He added, “When we see people go into businesses and come out with goods, we call it ‘looting.’” On the other hand, he said, “When we just see them carrying things down the road, we call it ‘carrying items.’”
And the AFP had the same policy:
Regarding the AFP/Getty “finding” photo by Graythen, Getty spokeswoman Bridget Russel said, “This is obviously a big tragedy down there, so we’re being careful with how we credit these photos.” Russel said that Graythen had discussed the image in question with his editor and that if Graythen didn’t witness the two people in the image in the act of looting, then he couldn’t say they were looting.
So there is really no reason to attribute racism to the people who took these pictures. They were following the similar policies of their news organizations, and observed different things.
Racism is a touchy issue in this country. It certainly exists — more than some people think, and less than other people think. Nothing about this debunking is intended to imply that racism is not a problem. It’s simply intended to show that there was a race-neutral explanation for the differences in these captions . . . and that people who use the captions as an example of racism (or race attitudes) may be unfairly attributing bad motives to photographers and caption writers who were just doing their job.
It’s a useful reminder in an era when any criticism of a black president is considered by some to be racism, no matter how much he lies or takes actions that harm the country.