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New Orleans in Pictures:
Determining and Interpreting the Iconic images of Hurricane Katrina
[ Andrea Miller and Shearon Roberts, Louisiana State U. ]
At the snap of a fingertip, people can associate an event in
history with some iconic image. The extent to which the media drives
a particular picture, or in television, video, to become the crowning
image of a news event has been the subject of great debate by
scholars exploring how a national cultural memory is formed through
visual rhetoric in contemporary photojournalism. (Foss, 1994; Zelizer, 1998).
Visual rhetoric attempts to combine not only the study of how
meaning is assigned to images, but how images function and persuade
(Foss, 1992). When images achieve "icon" status, then visual rhetoric
scholars explore how the media uses these images to frame events,
solidify public consensus and even influence public or political
response or action (Lucaites & Hariman, 2002; Perlmutter & Wagner,
2004). This study seeks to identify the emerging visual icons of
perhaps the greatest natural disaster in American history – Hurricane
Katrina. Additionally, this study will further the body of
literature by surveying those closest to the tragedy to see if
proximity has an effect on the choice, perception, emotion, and
function of the icons.
Achieving iconic image status
Perlmutter (1998) outlined a construct for labeling images as
iconic. These six guidelines start with the significance, importance
or novelty of the news event. Secondly, an icon emerges by its
ability to act as a metonym of the event in how it represents or
characterizes the event as a whole. Thirdly, Perlmutter (1998)
described the celebrity of the image or how the media takes the
image, frames it, and then promotes it as the single most visual that
sums up the event. The fourth construct is the prominence of display,
which occurs when news managers publish or broadcast the image in
elite news outlets. Next, the image becomes an icon when that display
is frequently repeated, either across many media outlets or is the
subject of several stories and analysis. Finally, an image becomes
iconic because it can generate a primordial theme in society by
evoking constructs of good versus bad, irony, conflict, etc
(Perlmutter, 1998; Scott, 2004).
Images begin the road to icon status when they are etched in the
public's mind by a combination of three of Perlmutter's (1998)
factors: the significance of the news event, the image's prominent
use and the frequency of the display. These three factors serve in
making the image renowned or popular at the onset of the event.
However, the other three factors are what solidify the pictures as
being iconic, because the image is not merely well known for its high
visibility, but because it takes on the representation of the
emotions, public discourse, outrage or political action associated
with the event. Therefore the metonymy, the celebrity and the
primordial themes of the image are what finalize it as an iconic
image (Perlmutter, 1998).
Historically, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War have
elicited iconic images not only because they were major news events,
but because the images were employed by leaders for their own
political agenda, and by the media, in its agenda-setting capacity
(Edwards & Winkler, 1997; Hariman & Lucaites, 2002; Medhurst, 1982
and Perlmutter, 1997, 1998). Today, the war on terror, provides a
plethora of war-provoked news events, ranging from the 9/11 attacks
to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When faced with increased
amounts of startling and memorable images from a salient news event,
researchers have looked at how editors and journalists now sort
through the clutter of images to select the most dynamic and telling ones.
Kratzer and Kratzer (2003) found that three criteria influenced
photo editors nationwide in publishing famed disturbing 9/11 photos
of victims jumping out of World Trade Center windows. These editors
weighed their reader's response, the victim's privacy and the image
as conveying the reality of the news as criteria to make these images
not only known but etched in the public's mind.
Photojournalists interviewed about 9/11 said the media takes images
and embellish, exploit, or sensationalize them to emphasize the news
value of an event (Riper, 2002). Perlmutter and Hatley-Major (2004)
found editors saw the Fallujah images of dead American civilian
contractors as not merely important to telling the story, but as news
worthy images. A point, the researchers argue, that exposes the
media's sensationalism by its decision to prominently publish
gruesome images of death and violence (Perlmutter & Hatley Major,
2004, p. 74). In other words, the news workers in these studies were
themselves tools for making the images famous. They marked their own
interpretations of the images as commentators in television news
shows or in articles and assigned their own reasons for why these
images were synonymous with the event.
What these studies suggest is that in the decision making
process of iconic image selection, the news workers are not only
those who frame the news event, but are also eyewitnesses to the
event which influences the frames they choose.
The use by the media of primordial themes for war images can
invoke political or public response as well as represent social
issues or movements. Cloud (2004) argued that images of veiled Afghan
women not only contributed to bolstering the U.S. government's
rationale for war with Afghanistan through generating pity for the
"treatment of women" in that country, but it boiled down the
complexity of Middle Eastern culture into inaccurate depictions. The
study showed that this use of an iconic image served a particular
agenda; showing a one-sided, Western interpretation of Middle Eastern culture.
Photographs become ideographs because they invoke some
historical or cultural rhetoric that identifies the image with a
"social commitment" such as democracy, liberty, etc (Cloud, 2004, p.
288). Likewise, Gallagher and Zagacki (2005) argued that Civil Rights
images, such as Norman Rockwell's paintings, attempted to counteract
mainstream press' one-sided images of the movement, focusing on the
violence of the Black Panthers rather than the injustices of
segregation in the South. The downside then in creating single iconic
representations, Cloud argued (2004), was that they sum up complex
movements or events into "fleeting moments of shocking
representation" (p. 300).
Whether using images to propel a movement or characterize a
news event, what makes the image iconic is not only its prominence
but its interpretation. Leaders frame the interpretation when they
use the icon for political means, the media interprets the icon when
they set the agenda, and the public then also interprets the icon
based on how they respond to it. Before making sense of a particular
audiences' survey responses to Hurricane Katrina icons, one must
first therefore understand that there are pre-existing internal and
external influences that impact an individual's interpretation of the
visual messages of icons.
These past studies recognize that the media and those in power
have great influence over what is selected as an iconic
image. However, how does the public, the viewers and reader, go
about determining which images in a news event are iconic to them?
This next section will explain why and how people gravitate to
certain images over others.
Interpreting the image
Some communication scholars, such as Sol Worth (1981), employed
visual interpretations of the arts and applied these concepts to
media images. Worth pointed out that "meaning is not inherent within
the sign itself, but rather in the social context, whose conventions
and rules dictate the articulatory and interpretive strategies to be
invoked by producers and interpreters of symbolic forms" (Worth, 1981, p. 138).
Therefore it can be argued that social context, conventions and
rules, are indicators of what is considered the "sociably right" way
to feel about or respond to an image. It is this external pressure
that scholars say accounts for some viewer's responses such as
sympathy, outrage and desire to support change over such issues as
Civil Rights or the freedoms of veiled Afghan women (Cloud, 2004;
Gallagher & Zagacki, 2005). People's responses to these social
problems do not necessarily indicate a universal, single feeling
about an issue, but society has pre-determined that people should
feel a certain way. People therefore act according to the norms of
society which uphold concepts such as freedom and liberty as
fundamental rights. Therefore people will interpret iconic images
according to these norms (Worth, 1981).
But what gives an image salience is not so much how people view it,
but how the media tells the audience to view it, by extension, a
visual agenda-setting. Studies have attempted to explore the
psychological effects of media images on viewers. Sherr (2004) found
that images that play on emotion capture the audience's attention
because they raises the viewers' levels of anxiety or sadness, making
the viewer more vulnerable to persuasion. The study of emotional
responses to Associated Press photos found a correlation between
negative responses and images of violence and disaster. The greater
the emotional response, "the greater the impact on public opinion
formation" (Sherr, 2004, p. 4).
Other studies attempted to define the effects of negative images.
Researchers have found people recall negative images better than
positive messages (Lang, 1991; Lang and Friestad, 1993) and because
of survival instincts and defense mechanisms (Zillmann & Brosius,
2000; Lang, Kuljinder & Qingwen, 1995). Human beings have developed a
reactionary instinct to negative images, therefore processing these
images faster and finding these images more memorable. Also when
people see images that tackle social problems with distressed
victims, the audience feels compassion, not so much for the victims,
but because they imagine themselves in the victims' situation. These
images reflect people's own insecurities – and therefore people role
play and respond with fear for their own safety or interests (Aust &
The studies merely indicate which kinds of images people will
recall better. They do not, however, mean that readers and viewers
will necessarily interpret the images in a negative way. Researchers
have found that the interpretation of images is usually discovered as
hindsight. People determine their responses "after an image is
thought to have generated a dramatic effect" (Sherr, 2004, p. 6).
Therefore the media and society can play a significant role in either
dramatizing or internalizing images for viewers.
As prior research indicates, institutions create icons and people
respond to them based on survival mechanisms and what is socially
acceptable. In studying the new emerging icons of future news
events, it is not simply enough to study why certain images emerge
more prominent over others, but why viewers select and interpret them
in that way.
Prior research, however, does not explore how people
increasingly reject what the media sell them as iconic images opting
for their own. In this age of information overload, and alternative
sources for news, people do not necessarily have to be passive agents
of media messages, but now select the images they consider meaningful
or memorable about a significant news event (McQuail, 1994; Severin &
Using visual rhetoric and Perlmutter's (1998) criteria for
iconic images as a framework, a study of the emerging iconic images
of Hurricane Katrina would help indicate the kinds of messages
institutions were disseminating and expose the preexisting social
influences on viewers that generate their interpretations and
responses to these images. In order to study this, we propose the
following research questions to be answered by the people who were
closest to this historic news event:
RQ1: What are the most memorable visual images from Hurricane Katrina?
RQ2: Why do the respondents feel these images are the most memorable?
RQ3: What do these Hurricane Katrina images mean to the respondents?
RQ4: What emotions do these images evoke in the respondents?
This study utilized a sample of 466 students at Louisiana State
University, located in Baton Rouge, the locus of many of the
evacuees. The students were enrolled in large general education
classes, required for freshmen, and constituted almost 20-percent of
the freshman class. Although a convenience sample, this allowed for
a cross-section of university students. Twenty-two percent of those
surveyed were actually displaced by Hurricane Katrina. A convenience
sample was also used because it was important that the people closest
to the event were surveyed while the events of August 29 were fresh
in their minds. The survey was executed in October of 2005; six weeks
after Hurricane Katrina ravaged south Louisiana.
The study used a twenty-six-item, researcher-developed survey
instrument that was descriptive in nature (see Appendix A). The
instrument included demographic questions as well as sections on news
use before and after Katrina and how affected (emotions and property)
each respondent was by the Hurricane. The demographics and news use
questions were multiple-choice. The questions on the effect of the
hurricane used a five-point, Likert-type scale from "Not at all
affected" to "Extremely affected."
The crux of the survey was four open-ended questions, based
on our research questions, asking the respondent to describe the most
memorable visual image of Katrina, where they saw it, why they
thought it was so memorable, and what the image meant to
them. Open-ended questions were used for this section because
participants could qualitatively describe what they saw, which
allowed for clearer recognition of the events. The nation was
bombarded with hundreds of thousands of images of Hurricane Katrina;
making the respondents choose from a researcher constructed list
seemed inappropriate. Cloven and Roloff (1993) argue that this type
of qualitative description allows for greater cognitive accessibility
and more time for the respondent to access their most salient
thoughts on the subject.
Using inductive qualitative analysis, clear patterns emerged
in the sample's responses, therefore allowing the researchers to
categorize the images (See Table 1). In all, 26 categories of images
were coded containing 95% of all responses (N=466). Most of the
categories were specific, such as the Super Dome, rooftop rescues,
looting, and the Red Cross. However, some general categories also
emerged such as media faces, children's faces, and aerial views of flooding.
Many respondents mentioned several visuals. However their first
response was coded; the first image they recalled and paused to write
about. The researchers looked for specific words and phrases. For
example, "aerial views of the flooding" was a separate category,
because many respondents specifically talked about the impact of the
helicopter shots that showed the miles and miles of
devastation. Ground shots of flooding or damage was a separate
category. It brought to mind pictures of houses off of their
foundations, cars up trees, blown out windows, and the waterlines on
the sides of the houses. Some respondents even drew the images.
During coding of the different iconic images, the researchers
noticed that the respondents also articulated the feelings that the
images invoked in them, many were obviously negative, while others
were definitively positive. Because of the dichotomy, Nabi's (2002)
categories of positive and negative emotions were used to code the
emotions the participants described when asked what the images meant
to them (Scott's pi = .81). According to Nabi, positive emotions
include happiness/joy, pride, compassion, relief, and hope, while
negative emotions include fear, guilt, anger, sadness, and disgust.
For the positive emotions, Nabi's definitions of these
discreet emotions guided the coding. A respondent who looked on the
bright side, who responded joyfully to a specific occurrence as a way
to help them reduce negative affect, was coded in the Happiness/joy
category. Only two responses were coded in this category.
Pride was the second positive emotion. These were comments
that looked for the triumph of the human spirit and ascribed credit
for the achievement of others. For example, rescue workers who were
tireless in their efforts, and those who said if we can go through
this, we can go through anything.
While Nabi breaks out empathy as a separate emotion, we chose
to include it in the Compassion category. These respondents had
great concern for others' suffering, felt their pain and wrote of a
desire to relieve it. They felt sorry, or pity for the victims and
said that the feeling caused them to want to help.
Relief was expressed by those whose homes or families were
spared. They said they felt lucky, thankful, and blessed. According
to Nabi, this kind of expression gives them alleviation of emotional distress.
The final positive emotion category is hope. Hope stems from
negative circumstances and is associated with feelings of
yearning. Many used the word hopeful or expressed a desire for a
better situation sustained in light of uncertain future expectations.
Fear is the first of the negative emotions. Respondents wrote
of being scared, terrified, feeling unsafe, and desperate. Fear
comes from situations when people feel something is out of one's
control, so personal helplessness was included here. Many talked of
their greatest fears coming true – the big one – the hurricane
everyone had always talked about but did not think would ever happen.
Guilt was the second smallest category behind happiness. Guilt
is associated with the violation of a moral code and the tendency to
want to make up for a harm done.
Anger was a prevalent response. People spoke of being angry
and frustrated. There were many demeaning offenses against loved
ones, or in this case, their city, which the respondents wrote of,
for example, the looting and treatment of the dead.
A sense of loss and resignation was coded for in the Sadness
category. Respondents wrote of feeling lonely, separated, and
isolated. They wrote of loosing everything – and that included
tangibles (houses) and intangibles (memories).
Disgust was the last negative category and the least
evoked. Some respondents did say, however, that some images made
them feel sick, were hard to look at, and caused aversion.
Although this study is primarily qualitative in nature, some
descriptive statistics will help create a framework to better
understand the sample and the qualitative results. Almost 53-percent
of the sample was female, and almost 75-percent Caucasian (N =
466). The participants were a mix of majors, with mass communication
being the largest percentage at just over one-quarter of those
surveyed. The sample was also young, which was expected, with
67-percent 18 and 19 year olds. Twenty-two percent of the students
surveyed were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
The media use questions yielded some interesting
results. Seventy-nine percent said before Katrina, television was
their main source of news, with the Internet being their second
source. Primary radio use was at less than 4-percent. However, in
the days immediately following Katrina, television was still the
number one news source at just over 59-percent, but radio jumped into
a strong second place with almost 26-percent. When asked about their
current media usage, television remains the primary news source of
62-percent of those surveyed. The survey showed radio usage has now
dropped to pre-Katrina levels at just under 4-percent.
When asked where the respondents saw their self-identified
most memorable image of Katrina, almost 80-percent said they saw it
on television. A still photo, source unknown, was the second
greatest response at just over 8-percent. Unique perhaps to this
study, almost 4-percent said they witnessed the image firsthand,
in-person. Internet, newspaper and magazine were the sources for
another combined 8-percent. Eighteen percent of respondents did not
identify the source of their iconic images.
For the question regarding affects to personal property, almost
70-percent of respondents said they were either somewhat affected,
affected, or extremely affected. However, for affects to family
property, almost half, or 46-percent, said their families were
extremely affected. The responses to emotional affects mirrored
property loss. The largest category was somewhat affected
emotionally at almost 30-percent for the individual respondent. But
when asked how their families were taking it emotionally, almost
67-percent said their families where either affected or extremely
affected by the hurricane.
Again, the top iconic images of more than 75-percent of all
respondents (N = 466) could be placed in 10 categories. The number
one iconic image was the roof rescues with 75 respondents saying it
was the most memorable visual image. The second largest category was
more personal – these were areas that were flooded, recognized
because they were areas where respondents lived. Tied for third were
the Super Dome images and aerial images of flooding and damage with
almost 9-percent each. Pictures of dead bodies were next with looting
images rounding out the top five (See Table 1 for iconic image
category rankings). Pictures of the damage from the ground, visuals
that included children, media faces, and images from Interstate 10
complete the top ten most memorable pictures from the media coverage.
Sadness, a negative emotion, was the overwhelming result of the
images with almost 33-percent saying that is how their chosen image
made them feel. Compassion, a positive emotion, was the second
greatest emotion evoked by the iconic images at almost
18-percent. Fear and anger were next at 12.6-percent and 11-percent
respectively. Another positive emotion, relief, rounded out the top
five with just over 9-percent (See Table 2 for emotion rankings).
Overview of Qualitative Responses
This study allowed media users to offer what they considered
to be the iconic images of hurricane Katrina. The responses were sad
and angry, poignant and pointless, but the honesty of these college
students appeared sincere. While respondents listed images that were
prominent in the media, some did not, and several other themes
existed in both their selection and interpretation of these images.
The number one iconic image named by the respondents was the rooftop
The images from Katrina have varied so drastically in their inferred
meaning. With so many images to choose from, why was this image so
prevalent in the responses?
There are a number of reasons why the rooftop rescues were so
memorable. Firstly, the news event broke the news cycle and anchors
and reporters were forced to offer rolling commentary, making the
roof rescue into a dramatic scene similar to that out of a Hollywood
movie. Simply put, the rooftop rescues made for great TV. Audiences
are equating dramatic footage with iconic imagery.
The second set of reasons encompasses how the rescues came to
symbolize so many of the issues underlying the tragedy; pre-existing
issues that helped frame interpretation. First, this kind of drama –
involving a victim and a hero – was a prominent primordial theme in
the news coverage. Second was the race issue because the majority of
these rescues featured white authorities saving African Americans off
of rooftops. Third, to the respondents, it highlighted the
unpreparedness of the government. Many of the respondents noted that
these rescues were a sad, foreseeable, and avoidable result of the
Another reason why the rescues were so memorable was flatly
pointed out by respondents: "because it was shown over and over
again." That respondent added that "I just wanted to see something
new, it got old." Other respondents agreed the images were iconic,
"Repetition followed by more repetition." And that it meant, "Not
much really. It wasn't my home that was destroyed and I can't
build them a new one. What can I do that the government isn't
However this repetition is different than other repetition
cited by respondents in this survey. For example, the video of
looters was limited. The same video of the same three or four
looting events was shown over and over again by numerous news
outlets. But for the roof rescues, thousands of these rescues took
place. Constant repetition of a similar scene but from a different
rooftop occurred for days and days after Katrina. The redundancy was
not of the limited looting video showed over and over again, but
different, often live rescues taking place as the viewers
watched. We were forced to watch new video of rescues over and over
again that appeared redundant.
For those not directly affected, the redundancy made them
angry. Other respondents referenced video that was close to their homes:
"The weekend after, Lakeview resembled death. I thought I was
in a Tim Burton film. It was shown so much and pounded into
my brain. The networks put it on a loop. I was brainwashed."
It appeared that this repetition did not annoy, but
re-traumatized, as victims were forced to watch the video of their
destroyed homes over and over again. One respondent referenced a
piece of video that she saw "3 or 4" times and that she "cried every time."
The above quote shows just how devastatingly close the respondents
were to the disaster. The sample included respondents who were
temporarily displaced students from New Orleans universities,
students who lived in New Orleans but were full-time LSU students,
students who frequented the nearby city to visit relatives, and
students who traveled to the city for entertainment. This
relationship between the proximity of the disaster to the respondents
drew iconic images that were personalized. Many of the iconic images
from Katrina for these respondents were simply "my house" or "my
Therefore, in many cases, respondents bypassed pre-selected
media images and chose their own images that included some
sentimental reasoning behind them. Respondents who were directly
affected by the disaster identified images of the streets they grew
up in, actually seeing the damage to their homes, the malls they
frequented, their high schools, the grocery store where their
grandmother used to take them shopping, the destroyed Twin Spans
bridge that led to their homes in Slidell. These respondents often
indicated that they did not find these personalized images in the
national or mainstream television coverage but on local media. This
reemphasizes the importance of local media for vital information
transmission in times of crisis. The respondents also identified
these images as being memorable because it was "my city" and it meant
to them that "my life will never be the same again" and that their
families must "start over and rebuild."
"The nucleus of our state was devastated."
An example of the other side, those not directly affected,
includes the following. This respondent chose a media-induced iconic
image and felt no connection.
"I'm a Texan. Katrina didn't affect me, so I didn't much care.
Local people are strongly worried about their affairs and I am
For most, proximity made all the difference. When one
respondent was asked what it meant to him that his house was the
iconic image of the disaster he simply answered "Everything." Still
another referred to the image of a dead woman floating face down in the water:
"I had no idea who it was and all I could think of is was it
someone that I knew or someone that my family knew or
was related to?"
In this regard, this study is different from other iconic
image studies. Less than 30 of those surveyed lived outside of
Louisiana. Often people only feel a limited connection to many of
the events in history that have been studied for example, Viet Nam or
9-11. Katrina took place in America's collective backyard, but for
others, including many that were surveyed, it was their actual backyard.
The respondents also felt a closeness to the Superdome because
it was a recognizable structure before the hurricane. The Superdome
was tied for the third most memorable image and was separated from
other New Orleans landmarks because of what went on there. The
Superdome was originally an icon of the city that the media turned
into an icon of the disaster.
There were two different types of references to the
Superdome. The most common mirrored the reasons for the choice of
the roof rescues, that the Superdome was a symbol of the suffering
and the lack of preparedness. Respondents talked about the people
waiting and waiting for help. They recalled video of hot, hungry and
suffering families waiting outside the structure among piles of
trash. They also referenced the dead bodies outside the Superdome
and how even in death, the people were suffering.
The second type of reference was of the damage to the
dome. They spoke of the aerials showing the hole in the roof and how
Mother Nature can make a magnificent marvel of man's accomplishments
Respondents who were non-natives of the devastated areas
recalled New Orleans landmarks with a sense of collective
closeness. Respondents who chose the French Quarter, Bourbon Street,
the Hyatt hotel and also the Superdome to some extent gave their own
interpretation of why they selected those places. Whenever they saw
the destruction of those buildings it reminded them of all the fun
times they had in the city – a reason why the city was so popular to
many college students before the hurricane. Many also referred to the
images meaning something beyond the individual or the buildings,
something more collective.
"I want New Orleans to live on… Everyone
that has been there knows how great it is.
New Orleans lives in you."
Damage & Death
The fourth largest category was aerials of the flooding and
damage. This is video where a specific landmark was not
mentioned. Most respondents talked about seeing helicopter shots of
miles and miles of flooded homes. When speaking of this video, the
students displayed a huge sense of sadness and loss. They also spoke
of the aerials in terms of disbelief, shock and surrealism. However
surreal, they said that these iconic images brought home the
magnitude of the disaster and a sense of resignation that their homes
and neighborhoods were probably not spared.
The fifth most invoked images were of the dead. This was also
shocking to many respondents. Their comments were specific:
"A photograph of a dead body floating in muddy
water wearing white, face down."
"I couldn't believe that people were dying on the side
of roads that I'm used to driving on."
Others spoke of the "death with lack of dignity" and how the
gruesome, images of dead bodies served to either sensationalize the
story or make it real to them. However interpreted, the media marked
and chose these images as newsworthy.
Race & Looting
Also real to many respondents were the apparent race themes in the
coverage mainly due to the disproportionate number of stranded
African Americans. Respondents acknowledged this in their selection
of iconic images that took on two forms.
Respondents in one camp spoke of the disparity of blacks
suffering at locations such as the Superdome. Others spoke of blacks
wading through the water or standing on roof tops trying to be
rescued. In many cases they indicated that the image suggested that
racism was still rampant in America. In other cases their comments
could be construed as racist:
"Those people should have left."
"All the blacks in New Orleans on roofs, in the water, looting…
We need to change our welfare system."
"All of the black people that were too stubborn to leave piling
in the Superdome. 'Dumb.' It means they want to die."
Some noted that the images out of New Orleans looked as if a
Third World existed in America and it enraged many African American
respondents who said they were upset to see "their people" portrayed
in this manner.
"The images they were showing did not depict that of LA.
It showed us during our worst time yes, but that does not
mean we are like this all the time. I do believe the media
could have spent more time showing the good."
Looting was another aspect of the race issue that evoked
contrasting emotions. In most cases, respondents indicated both black
people and looting in the same image. Some respondents felt sorry for
looters and sympathized with them and the need to survive. Others
were outwardly appalled:
"People are stupid in this world. You have a city under water and
people stuck on rooftops and these people are stealing DVD's," one
Another recalled seeing:
"Three black guys looting a clothing store that were laughing…Why
would you want to steal clothes in this time of tragedy?...Some
people are just that low."
One respondent also found it amusing:
"I remember footage of a black guy running full speed through a
parking lot, while holding his pants up as he ran and a white man
chasing him….it was hilarious…it told me not to go to N.O. [New
Orleans] and get robbed by crack heads."
For others, it just made them angry:
"The scenes on Poydras Street where looters were
kicking in doors, stealing, and celebrating like it's
carnival. The rage it caused me to feel. It made me
think there's no hope for humankind, as long as these
animals are allowed to flourish."
Looting was the sixth most mentioned iconic image. But again,
the respondents made a note of saying it was so memorable because the
media repeated it so much. Through repetition, perhaps the media
promulgated a feeling that the looting was more widespread than it
actually was. Did the viewers recognize that the same shots were
being shown over and over again? One acknowledged that even though
the images made her scared, perhaps the media was partly to blame.
She wrote, "The media can sometimes portray events in the wrong light
causing people to panic."
The media also came under criticism for giving many of these
images a specific social context. Respondents noted the media
portrayed black people as looters, while white people were looking
for food and water to survive. By giving each of these pictures a
different caption, it sparked different socially acceptable
responses. Respondents were "angered," "pissed," and "enraged" at
the African-American looters. For the pictures where race was not
mentioned words like "desperate" and "survival" were used. The media
gave context to this conflict. Respondents were conditioned to be
angry at the African-American victims, but to feel sorry for the white victims.
On the other hand, some respondents found positive reflections
from the race frames. They listed their iconic images as moments when
they saw a white person helping or caring for a black person and vice
versa. They indicated that they were pleased to see people of all
backgrounds coming together during a time of tragedy.
Whether the media coverage conveyed a race or a socioeconomic
context, one respondent's comments were particularly perceptive:
"It showed 3 to 4 stories mansions with water up
to the gutters. Katrina brought the rich and the poor
to one level."
Conflict & Blame
Many of the respondents who spoke of race said they blamed the
government for abandoning African Americans. One respondent even
indicated that Kanye West was an iconic image of Katrina because he
stated during a performance that "George Bush hates black people." As
this quote indicates, images of authorities consistently sparked two
responses – either "hope" or "incompetence." Many blamed them:
"To leave one of our cities and citizens looking this
way only meant that I needed to rethink my faith in
state and national government."
While some were general in their assignment of culpability,
"That our system let us down on the state, federal, and local
others were more specific:
"Bush and Governor Blanco are incompetent."
The researchers were surprised that Mayor Ray Nagin was not a
more common answer. One of two respondents who chose the New Orleans
Mayor as their iconic image said it was when he was "getting mad and
cursing on TV." It was memorable, he said, because the mayor said
what everyone was feeling and that he appreciated the mayor for
standing up to officials.
The authority category also included those helping to rescue and
keep order – such as police and Coast Guard - those trying to manage
the conflict. Again, these images either invoked pride or helplessness:
"A policeman with a shotgun fending off looters
on a street already partially flooded. It seemed like
he was one of the few left down there doing good.
It made me think of a soldier whose entire platoon
was dead and he was still fighting. No help came."
For many of the iconic events in history, there is someone or
something to blame - the enemy, the assassin, the terrorists, and in
the case of Hurricane Katrina, the government. However for some
respondents, the blame was not laid at government response, but on
those who as one person wrote "should have left."
Media criticism & involvement
Another interesting finding is how a celebrity's face can
become an icon of the disaster. This includes the media where
reporters and anchors covering the event became part of how the event
will be remembered. And these individuals will be remembered for both
their humanity and for the perceived exploitation and
sensationalization of the event.
Respondents said that television reporters seemed either
insincere or were taking advantage of a tragic situation. Some went
as far as to say that reporters' antics were causing them to turn
away from coverage. For example, one respondent lashed out at this study:
"I was and am still so traumatized that I don't really want
to talk much about it. I resent the fact that you media people
are using others people's traumas to see how much we
remember from the damn TV."
Two TV anchors mentioned several times by name were Fox News
Channel's Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera. Some respondents said
that seeing reporters covering the storm while it was passing over
the city was helpful for them in monitoring the storm path. They also
said that seeing reporters struggle to withstand strong winds during
the storm made them even more fearful of hurricanes and allowed them
to see how powerful storms really are, especially in the aftermath.
However, when respondents mentioned these reporters getting
emotional and even crying it elicited mixed responses:
"I found it a little unnerving that people (reporters)
used to being around horrific events were so emotional
about the hurricane aftermath."
Others indicated that they were "embarrassed" by the
journalists' behavior and some even indicated it as being "funny."
Images & Emotion
Funny was not a common word used in the descriptions of the iconic
images. Sadness and compassion made up for almost 50-percent of the
respondent's emotions toward their chosen iconic images – the former
a negative emotion, the latter a positive one.
"Sad" was the most frequently used word to describe the iconic
images. Most respondents, more than one third of them, felt a great
sense of loss on many levels – loss of personal property, loss of
life, loss of innocence, loss of a great city, loss of their college
The images also made the respondents connect to the
victims. Compassion was the second greatest emotion evoked from the
images as respondents expressed great sympathy and empathy for the
victims. Often those who felt compassion were the ones who mentioned
that they wanted to help – a positive response to a positive emotion
from a very negative event. While negative emotions often get more
response, this positive emotion elicited a behavioral response.
Louisiana State University was used as a shelter and operational site
in the aftermath of the storm. Many respondents who indicated that
seeing images on television made them "want to help," went further
and described their volunteering experiences:
"I worked at the PMAC after the crisis and
heard stories from people who were rescued from their ruffs.
It was a realistic image."
Fear and anger made up another almost one-quarter of the responses
to iconic images. Anger was predominantly reserved for the
government's slow response and the looters. Fear was also a response
from looting video, but mostly respondents feared their homes would
be destroyed and that life would never the same again.
Relief, at almost 9-percent, described how people felt when they saw
the images. They indicated that they were either relieved that it
was not their home, or their family member waiting for rescue on a roof top.
Pride and hope (10.8% combined) were usually saved for the iconic
images that included rescue workers – ordinary people doing their
jobs under extraordinary circumstances. Respondents also championed
the human spirit of the victims. One visual image several people
mentioned was the picture of a woman in a wheelchair, wrapped in the
A surprising finding was that the chosen iconic images did not
bring forth a spirit of rebuilding. The iconic images of the 1993
Midwestern flood fostered the "theme of restoring the nation's
bucolic heartland" (Fry, 2003). However, in this study, it appeared
that six weeks after the tragedy, the respondents were still grasping
the enormity of the disaster.
In summary, there was as an almost sixty to forty split in the type
of emotion evoked from the images that the respondents identified as
iconic. Sixty percent felt a negative emotion resulting from their
chosen iconic image. Almost forty percent felt a positive emotion.
This study shows that the pictures the media were putting forth
created conflicting interpretations and conflicting emotions. The
pictures of the looters overwhelmingly evoked passionate anger. At
the same time this competes with the compassion for those who needed
rescue and relief. The descriptions of the people were also in
juxtapositions - young or old, black or white – often highlighting
the most vulnerable of society. And when these were chosen as iconic
images, the emotions were dichotomous – sympathy, empathy, sadness
for the young and old – anger toward the black looters.
While the study did give respondents the opportunity to articulate
what they considered to be the iconic image for the news event, not
much reliance can be placed in the sincerity of their feelings about
the image. Firstly, iconic image research tells us that the media and
those in power tell audiences how to feel about an image. Then
secondly, survey methodology researchers argue that participants feel
pressure to give the "socially desirable" answer to a question
(Finkel, Guterbock & Borg, 1991; Eveland & McLeod, 1999).
Therefore, when respondents were asked to interpret how they
felt about an iconic image such as "black looters," several indicated
that it showed how badly the situation had deteriorated and how
desperate the victims had become. Few ventured to actually give
stereotypical comments about blacks, or even ventured to harshly
name-blame the Bush administration for a slow response, opting to
give politically correct responses. The respondents therefore could
have understated or overstated their feelings, depending on their
level of comfort.
However, while we cannot always trust survey respondents to
give an honest answer, one strength of this study is that is was
given within weeks of the devastation where emotions were still
running high. The sample consisted of students going to school with
displaced New Orleans students and sheltering displaced family and friends.
Therefore the study is unique because of its proximity to and
involvement of the respondents in the event. Most iconic images
studies involve images from wars overseas and national events, while
having great impact, are still not local. This event took place less
than a hundred miles from most of the respondents. For almost one
quarter of them, it was taking place in their hometown. This changed
the nature of the chosen iconic image. The media put forth many
images, but because of the personal nature of the event, the
respondents chose images that to others outside of south Louisiana
would not mean as much. It was more personal. It showed that despite
the fact that national and cable news stations marshaled emotional
correspondents to the disaster scene, those most immediately affected
still found the local media images to be more resourceful.
Violence, death, injustice, suffering, drama, compassion – all
these were overwhelmingly present in the images of Katrina. The
media marked the event, the audience saw the horror, and an emotional
response was triggered. Therefore even within the Katrina disaster,
the media still set both the mood and iconography of the event. While
on the other hand, be it positive or negative, a behavioral response
was present in volunteerism as those affected made a social
commitment. The media was therefore also successful in generating
public action by its use of iconic images of the disaster,
reinforcing that iconic images not are used as tools to impact but
also to persuade.
The media was also successful, with its use of live
broadcasting and dramatic video footage, in creating collective
experiences. This study finds that when given the option to select
the iconic image themselves, audiences select the image the media
repeats to them over and over again. The participants, for the most
part, gave responses that the media would have wanted. However,
unlike other icon research, this study shows that when proximity to
the event is a factor, people will give more personalized
images. The closer the audience is to a news event, the more likely
they are to abandon that dominant media image for one that strikes
closer to home. When they have a choice and a deep personal
connection to the news event, they choose their own iconic images.
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Iconic Image Category Rankings and Percentages (N = 446)
Roof Rescues 16.5
Areas where they live 10.3
Super Dome 8.6
Aerial shots of damage 6.9
Dead Bodies 6.4
Ground shots of damage 5.4
Media Faces 3.6
Interstate 10 2.8
Man loses wife 2.8
People wading 2.4
Convention Center 2.1
New Orleans landmarks 2.1
Red Cross 1.5
Ghost town 1.1
U.S. flag 1.1
Satellite storm eye .9
Ranking and Percentage of Emotions evoked by Images (N = 422)