Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–Women usually are a minority of the mentions in television newscasts and daily newspapers.

But in the case of Hurricane Katrina and later, Hurricane Rita, they were front and center for days.

There is currently no count of the gender mix of images, but for anyone leafing through half a dozen major newspapers and visiting their Web sites during the first half of September, the attention given to women was striking.

Most dominant were the images of mothers holding their children, providing comfort even as they lived through the least comfortable time of their lives.

There were a variety of other images that helped show women in all their diversity.

Flip through The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during the week after the storm, and there they all are, the real women of the world.

There was the female paramedic tending to a man and his dog in St. Bernard Parish, La. A woman with her arm around her baby daughter fills out a job application after being evacuated. The owner of a ruined janitorial business discusses her strategy to restart it. A caretaker pleads for assistance for her elderly patient. A weary woman pushing a shopping cart of belongings stops to rest, her head in her hands.

Farmers, Scientists, Sailors

In USA Today, farmer Patty Vogt was keeping a calf’s head above water as it was towed by boat to higher ground. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist Micah Milton is portrayed interviewing a survivor.

Among the photos moved by The Associated Press, a female sailor from the USS Tortuga helps a woman on crutches fill out relocation paperwork. In one of the most famous, shot by AP photographer Eric Gay, 5-year-old Tanisha Blevin, an African American, holds the hand of a white woman in a wheelchair, Nita LaGarde, who is exactly 100 years older than the little girl at her side.

The humanity of these images, and the news reports that fleshed them out with important details and context, constitute some of the most remarkable depictions of women we’ve seen in a long time.

The racial element that’s been discussed for weeks in the aftermath of Katrina was apparent.

Two-thirds of the New Orleans population is not white and minority neighborhoods were most hurt by flooding in the city. But knee-jerk stereotyping of the needy and the needed was undercut somewhat by scenes of who was doing what for whom.

George Will, for instance, in his Sept. 13 syndicated column, saw Katrina as an opportunity to write disapprovingly about the number of black women "with children but not husbands" affected by the disaster. Yet these women–whose single motherhood he blamed for crimes committed by black males–were keeping families together under excruciating circumstances.

Refreshing Realities

Why didn’t Will instead choose to talk about the women in the photographs? This would have given him a chance to talk about refreshing reality versus the overplayed fixation on black women as single mothers.

Such as the young African American female sailor from the USS Tortuga who helped a middle-aged white woman fill out forms. There was the photograph of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist Micah Milton, an African American, taking information from a male, and the black female caretaker trying to get help for her white patient.

Other realities were less pleasant. With the cameras rolling and reporters peppering him with questions, then-director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Michael Brown revealed himself to be out of his depth, while the uber-boss, President Bush, took his sweet time extricating himself from his vacation and arriving in the devastated areas.

The widespread anger at the administration’s sloppy response, along with the fact that Bush buddy Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi, had early and regular access to the president while Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, didn’t, added to many people’s disgust and distrust.

The performance of journalists in bringing us so much real-time information about unfolding events–including the fury of those who felt abandoned–must be commended.

A Pew Research Center Study of 1,000 Americans Sept. 6-7 found that 65 percent rated news coverage of Hurricane Katrina good or excellent. Female journalists brought a tremendous amount to the table, taking enormous risks in the winds and the rising water, and delivering the goods, although their efforts weren’t in the limelight as much as those of their male colleagues.

Network TV Guys Get Attention

Network TV guys got most of the attention in prime time and credit in print.

USA Today, in a Sept. 12 analysis of Katrina coverage ("News Media Are Heeding a ‘Call to Arms’"), included photographs of four TV reporters who covered the story. All of them were men (CBS’ John Roberts, ABC’s Brian Ross, and CNN’s Jeff Koinange and Anderson Cooper). Nine people were quoted in this story, but only one woman, CBS News executive Marcy McGinnis.

So permit me to hand out some "attagirls" to a few of the windswept, waterlogged women who reported from the scene for days.

CNN’s Jeanne Meserve and Mary Snow and NBC’s Campbell Brown worked incredibly hard, reporting from destroyed communities along the Gulf. Meserve’s telephone commentary from a drowning New Orleans hotel was particularly gripping.

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, a veteran war correspondent, pitched in to describe the horrors unfolding in New Orleans’ flooded and re-flooded streets.

Houston Chronicle photographer Melissa Phillip spent a week in New Orleans, photographing survivors who were pleading, praying, celebrating–and yes, marrying–and recorded her thoughts for the Chronicle Web site.

Natalie Pompilio of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who had worked for the New Orleans Times-Picayune for six years, returned to her old city to see friends before the hurricane struck. She lost her car, her money and her ID, but spent two weeks there covering the story, including the sacking of a Wal-Mart, during which she watched police take T-shirts, DVDs and dog food, and saw firefighters help themselves to fishing rods. Like Phillip, she recorded her harrowing experiences for her newspaper’s Web site audio feed.

The women’s stories inside the larger story are powerful. Well told and well photographed, they show what women can and will do in times of adversity, sending outdated notions about women’s capabilities off with the vanishing hurricane winds.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism" (Strata Publishing), which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World" (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers).



For more information:

The Philadelphia Inquirer–Audio interview with Natalie [Pompilio]
Sept. 15, 2005:

USA Today–
"News Media Are Heeding a ‘Call to Arms,’
Sept. 12, 2005:

Houston Chronicle–
"Voices of Katrina: Stories from the aftermath of the storm"
September 2005:

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