A Tale of Two Disasters: American Media Coverage of Katrina and March 11, 2011

By James Barrett

A common misconception of news outlets is that they exist in order to report complete and total facts 100 percent of the time. Although it is the job of news outlets to report on current events, they do so by constructing a narrative. When the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, American news outlets scrambled to cover the devastation. News networks like CNN and Fox News rushed to find any adequate expert that could report on the scientific aspects of the disaster while simultaneously they reported on any new developments that came out. All of the developments came out with relatively no delay, and the story moved forward in close to real time. Modern technology has drastically shortened the time in which news stories move around the globe. A daily newspaper as a person’s only source of news is something of the distant past. People are constantly surrounded by news, which is one reason why it is so easy for outlets to create a narrative for us to consume. When newspapers reigned supreme, writers and editors had to adhere to strict guidelines like word limits and photograph placement. Stories would then be categorized based on level of importance, the longer, more striking stories would land on the front page, above the fold line, and the lesser stories would be tucked away in the back pages for the avid reader. While it is true that newspapers still exist, they are rarely relied upon as a person’s only news source. The Internet and television combine to give most Americans their news nowadays and those two mediums have made it incredibly difficult for a person to get away from news. A person opening their web browser is given an infinite number of options to search, links to articles, videos of footage, and headlines from around the world. For the first time people can tailor their news to fit their own personal desires. Many people see news as a way to become more informed about the world but from the earliest days of newspapers to the 24- hour news networks, to Internet bloggers, everyone is trying to trying to spin a story in one direction or another.

Given that the Internet has no boundaries, media outlets who post on stories big enough to span multiple days have the ability to tell a story of an event in whatever way the wish, complete with an arc, until there is another event for them to reenact the same process with. The March 11 earthquake and tsunami were no different. American media outlets reported on the disaster but they also reaffirmed preconceived notions about the Japanese people in doing so. Similarly, the same outlets were guilty of the same crimes six years prior during the hurricane Katrina coverage. Although the narratives were different, the victims of both disasters were portrayed how the media wanted the world to see them. The Japanese come out as brave having endured having endured a tremendous hardship and the citizens of New Orleans come out look savage and brutal. The narrative only started after the reporting on the disaster has ended and the media can painted the survivors in any way they saw fit. After the weather had subsided, news outlets mostly want ed to cover the reactions of the humans who had endured the hardship rather than the fact that an unprecedented weather event had just taken place. In the case of Katrina, there were reports of looting, robberies, and the entire city of New Orleans was reported to be a war zone. In addition, there was widespread criticism of the Bush administration and their response or lack thereof to the Katrina disaster.

In an article entitled “Beware the too Compelling Narrative” the authors Brett and Kate McKay discuss why humans are so compelled by narrative. They write: “Psychologists have found that the human brain is primed for narrative. We find messages that are framed as stories more memorable, easy to understand, and convincing.[1]” The fact that news stories are easy to understand may be the most important part of that quote. It is rare that someone is willing to sift through multiple accounts of the same event in order to form their opinion. It is much more likely that a person will watch or read one story and form their opinion around that. People seem to appreciate stories that require little thought as well as little work to do in order for them to consider themselves an expert on the matter. News has the ability to sway people’s opinions, all while creating a story for people to consume and spit back to their friends.

In order to show the complete story arc, it is necessary to begin with when the news first broke for hurricane Katrina. Due to Katrina being a hurricane and since those are much easier to predict than an earthquake, the coverage leading up to Katrina was made up of weather speculation and concern for the people of New Orleans. CNN’s coverage the night before Katrina hit New Orleans had the same type of feel as when the Northeast United States is preparing for a large winter storm.


This video has a telephone interview with mayor Edward Price from Mandeville, Louisiana, which according to the news anchor is about 20 miles northeast of New Orleans. The video has a very cryptic feel especially because we now know that New Orleans had an extremely high level of devastation. At about the 2:50 mark, the mayor says, “this storm could bring loss of life, and that is the part we are scared about now.” The anchor is interested in the mayor’s use of the word scared and asks him if he is scared. One can infer that the mayor is scared but he also implies that he is confused about the fact that they are not seeing signs of a storm yet. The anchor brings up the fact that some people have in the past prepared for the worst and then the storm has not been as bad as it was advertised. Although weather tracking technology is not perfect all the time, and it is true that sometimes storms are not nearly as bad as the weatherman makes them out to be, one has to unequivocally say that those in New Orleans had much more notice to the severity of Katrina than those in Japan had to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

March 10th was a fairly slow news day in the United States; headlines were geared toward the Libyan Civil War and protests in Wisconsin regarding the “Wisconsin Repair Budget Bill.” It would be callous to say that news networks were hoping for a disaster to strike, but it is probable that they were hoping for a major event to occur to grab the attention of the public. If they were hoping for a disaster, they got one in the form of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan. The news that Japan had been hit with one of the largest earthquakes in history spread to the all American news networks rapidly. The coverage of the quake and subsequent tsunami was in large part the most accurate part of the entirety of the coverage. Since footage of the quake itself and the tsunami overtaking buildings is so breathtaking, there was no need for news organizations to spin the story, at least not yet.


This video from CNN shows footage of the tsunami coming in and displacing everything in its path. At the 1:20 mark in the video, there is video from the Sendai airport and the anchor points out people standing on top of the control tower. People watching CNN at this point would have certainly been affected by these images and therefore it would have been pointless had CNN attempted to portray any kind of message about the Japanese people. Later, around the 8:09 mark, there is footage of massive shaking at the CNN studio in Japan. The rumbling is loud and since the camera is pointing out from whoever is filming the viewer gets a first person perspective of the massive shaking. The video also serves as a warning to those who may be on an island in the Pacific Ocean. There was a great deal of mystery surrounding the events of that day. Anchors had to adapt to what was being fed through their ear pieces, producers had to do whatever they could to get an earthquake expert on the phone, and those watching were unsure how the rest of the day would play out. The nature of breaking news is that it has to be done on the fly, and for that reason it is in large part the most honest way to receive a story. There is little need to spin something that already has people on the edges of their seats.

In the days after hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it became apparent that from a media perspective, the disaster had every single element of a captivating story. First, there was the human element that people wanted to see. Displaced people either roamed the streets of New Orleans or were stranded on top of a structure looking down on stagnant water. Much like the people on top of buildings watching the tsunami in Japan, Katrina’s victims all appear to be dumbfounded as well. The second aspect of the story that the media ran with was the vast criticism that President George Bush as well as FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] each received. Hurricane Katrina gave the media ample firepower against the mismanagement of the Katrina disaster. FEMA director Michael Brown was crushed under questions of his qualifications and eventually resigned on September 11, 2005. Before his resignation came, George Bush commended Michael Brown on September 2 leading many in the media to question George Bush as well. In an article posted to CNN’s website, titled “George Bush Gets Ground Tour of Katrina Damage” the author alludes to racial discrimination in the recovery process. The author writes: “The poll found that six in 10 blacks interviewed said the federal government was slow in rescuing those stranded in New Orleans because many of the people were black. But only about one in eight white respondents shared that view[2].” Soon thereafter, the media had another aspect to report on: the racial side effects of Katrina. In a nutshell, whites thought the government was doing a fine job and blacks thought they were being treated as if the government did not care about them. The story for hurricane Katrina was starting to take form and because of that, viewers allowed the story to shape their beliefs.

Articles that came out right after the March 11th disaster in Japan had an altogether different approach. In wake of Katrina, a common pervasive thought was that the city of New Orleans was in complete disarray and the people of New Orleans were doing very little to help an already dire situation. The opposite was true regarding the Japanese in the days following March 11th. In an article posted to the Fox News Website on March 15, 2011, entitled “ Quake Response Showcases Japan’s Resilient Spirit” the author begins the article by telling a story about warehouse workers giving out coffee and soda, yelling to those walking by to “help yourself! Take what you need!” Although it is a very nice story, (the warehouse workers most likely helped many people that day) it is evident that the title of the article and the first few sentences equate an entire country with only a few people’s good deed. The author goes on to talk about two Japanese phrases that he uses in an effort to show the Japanese attitude in the face of adversity. He writes: “One is ‘shikata ga nai,’ which roughly translates as ‘it can’t be helped,’ and is a common reaction to situations beyond one’s control. The other is ‘gaman,’ considered a virtue. It means to be patient and persevere in the face of suffering[3].” The use of these phrases and their explanations in an American news stories seem to be the media’s way of complimenting the Japanese on their attitude toward an unbelievable event. This article posted to the Fox News website was not the only to mention the term gaman. The term became very popular among news outlets and it crept into American lexicon.

It is not that the word is not an accurate way to describe the Japanese, but there are nuances to every culture, and nuance is not something the media does very well. There was looting in Japan after March 11th that was not covered by the American media.


This video, set to a very catchy version of the X-Files theme song has footage of stores that had been looted and a police force intent on catching looters in the act. One can only speculate as to why this was not covered by the American media, but it is possible that looting in Japan did not fit in with the narrative of the strong willed Japanese who are capable of enduring a tremendous hardship.

In the days following the devastation of hurricane Katrina, there was a widespread notion that the government had failed the people of New Orleans, but then the story got more entangled with reports of looting.


This report from NBC news is very interesting because not only does it report on the looting; it actually shows looters in action. At the 36-second mark, a man can be seen attempting to throw a large rock through a window and the video goes on from there depicting people taking loads of items from a local Wal-Mart. Near the one minute mark, a man, who is very candid about his robbery, talks about taking shoes. His last sentence before the camera cuts to another shot is: “trying to make sure we live.” The video was shot in such a way that it makes the viewer angry at the looters for taking items that are not theirs to take, but it is possible to interpret the looting that was occurring in New Orleans as necessary. People will do anything they can to survive, and in the midst of a desperate situation, when the people of New Orleans were getting very little government assistance, looting must have seemed like the only viable option for survival. The other notable and somewhat obvious aspect of that video is that all the looters depicted are black. It would be naïve of anyone to believe that of all the looting that occurred across New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, that 100 percent of the looters were black, but that is the way the story is portrayed in the media.

The next stage of the story in Japan was the nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. At this stage the American media became divided on how to best to cover this aspect. Once the story of a nuclear meltdown had subsided, news outlets looked for a new spin. ABC decided to stick with the narrative that the American public had embraced and even took it a step further by failing to ask any tough questions and letting the natural disaster take the blame for massive faults.


This ABC news story has every element of heroism that the general public craves. First the anchor points out that there is an inherent difference between Americans and Japanese. She says that if this were happening in America, everyone would know who these men are. That is likely true, but then she says “TEPCO their power company and their country has kept them on purpose, nameless and faceless symbols of duty and honor.” Those words manage to reiterate to the viewer the image of the selfless Japanese who would do anything for others in the face of adversity, but they also do not access blame of any kind. There is no mention of why the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant melted down or possible safety measures that were over looked. There is only mention of the human element, which works to lead the viewer astray from important questions such as how and why this happened. It is fairly easy and an obvious answer for the viewer to unassumingly assess blame to the earthquake and tsunami, but had a nuclear reactor melted down in America as the anchor alludes to, would the media and general public had reacted so unassumingly?

While ABC was committed to the Japanese as selfless narrative, The New York Times was reporting on more important details. In an article written by Norimitsu Onishi that was posted on June 24, 2011, the author outlines how TEPCO and the Japanese government were culpable in the meltdown of the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant. Onishi reports on something known as the “safety myth” in Japan. In the years leading up to the Fukushima- Daiichi meltdown, there was a false sense of security that pervaded Japanese brains and implied that nuclear power was completely safe. The culprits behind the safety myth were none other than the Japanese government and TEPCO who according to Onishi “spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising and educational programs emphasizing the safety of nuclear plants[4].” The safety myth in Japan caused people to look away from nuclear power and declare it was safe without knowing its full potential for destruction. Following the meltdown, two separate investigative reports were filed in order to fully assess what had happened and why. Both reports[5] [6] had very strong words against TEPCO, who they implied could have done much more in the way of making the plant safer and more efficient during a disaster situation. TEPCO seemed to believe that a tsunami the size of the one on March 11, 2011 would never happen and therefore they would never have to worry about it. While it does seem as though they were choosing to believe that a tsunami of that size was impossible, it also seems as though they were working to reinforce the safety myth. Onishi’s article asks why there were no robots at Fukushima-Daiichi. He writes: “The answer is that the operators and nuclear regulators, believing that accidents would never occur, steadfastly opposed the introduction of what they regarded as unnecessary technology.” The presence of safety tools would go against the message of safe nuclear power, so TEPCO argued against them. One can see a stark similarity between the American news media and TEPCO. Both wanted to relay a certain story to the general public, and in TEPCO’s case it cost many lives.

On the one- year anniversary of hurricane Katrina, several news stories reported on the state of New Orleans. During that year, however, it was difficult to forget about Katrina. The overarching storylines of bad government organizations such as FEMA, the pervading stereotype of black New Orleans as looters, and the criticism of George Bush made it so Katrina was only seconds away from front- page news again. What seemed to get lost in the midst of all those story lines was the thousands of displaced people who were still struggling even after several months. As soon as the anniversary hit, however, they became the focal point as they should have been all along. In an NPR article titled, “Katrina Victims Still Struggle to Find a Way Home” the author John Ydstie discusses the continuing hardship those who were displaced are still experiencing. His ending paragraph says: “How long it will take for Katrina’s victims to find their way home — geographically and emotionally — remains to be seen. It’s clear that for many, the journey is far from over[7].” This is how the media’s coverage of Katrina came full circle. They started with the human element when they displayed displaced people roaming the streets and people stranded on the roof, but eventually other story lines seemed to grab the attention of the American public and so members of the media gravitated toward that aspect. It took about a year, but finally the human element regained the coverage it deserved without the other unnecessary details.

As media coverage died down during the months after the March 11th disaster, the fact remained that almost an entire coast of Japan had been eviscerated and it would not be rebuilt for several years.  As it stands now, the entire region of Tohohu is still looking at many more years, perhaps even decades before people can live there. Attention on Japan dwindled, and major news networks went on to covering more current topics. Even major global events like an unprecedented earthquake have a short shelf life when it comes to major American news networks. Whereas Katrina had storylines that mattered to Americans, the March 11th disaster fell out of our brains and was replaced with other stories. It is possible that since the coverage of Japan was more or less dedicated to showing how strong willed the Japanese people are, that people in the United States may have just assumed everything would be fine in Japan. A CNN article by Peter Shadbolt reveals an interesting end to the coverage of March 11 in America. The article was posted to CNN’s website on March 12, 2012 has a simple title: “Japan One Year On: What’s Changed?” The article starts by relaying the important facts about the disaster such as the death toll and the common comparison between Fukushima-Daiichi and the Chernobyl disaster. The article even goes into the concept of gaman, just to make sure we all really know what it means. But after several sentences displaying the vast wasted land, the author just discusses property damage associated with the quake. He talks about cost and tons of debris, but never does he address the human element the earthquake and tsunami. The last line is a quote from hotel manager, Satoshi Ito. He says: “The rest of the town is only making slow progress,’ says Ito. ‘When I look around, there is nothing. No houses, no buildings.’” Shadbolt must have made a conscious decision to end his article that way, but it comes off as a bit callous because while the element of property destruction is important, what is more important is how people are feeling. While getting so used to the concept of gaman, Americans must have forgotten that there must be something the Japanese people are suppressing, that they are not all okay.

Both hurricane Katrina and the March 11th disaster were truly unbelievable events and the American news media was able to cover each one in a way that would reinforce the preconceived notions of the general public. In New Orleans there was the general opinion that the city itself had become a hotbed of illicit activity, George Bush and FEMA failed to help the city out, and each storyline contained many sub story lines so that the media could continue its coverage for many months after. In the end, however, the people of New Orleans were covered the way they should have been, as people who had endured one of the worst hurricanes in recorded history. While the American media may have righted its wrong where Katrina is concerned, it failed in its coverage of the Japanese. The perception of the strong willed Japanese may have caused people in the United States to stop paying attention. It is possible that even though March 11, 2011 is four years in the past, the Japanese people are still very much struggling with an event that is already readily forgotten in America. Although it would have gone against the narrative, maybe it would have been better for the American media to have been more critical of Japanese society. It may have helped in the long run.







[1] Brett and Kate McKay “Beware the too Compelling Narrative”. Artofmanliness.com April 29, 2015. http://www.artofmanliness.com/2015/04/29/beware-the-too-compelling-narrative/

[2] CNN author. “George Bush Gets a Ground Tour of Katrina Damage” CNN.com. September 12, 2005. http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/09/12/katrina.impact/

[3]Associated Press Author. “Quake Response Showcases Japan’s Resilient Spirit” Fox News.com. March 15, 2011. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2011/03/15/tsunami-tests-japans-resilient-spirit/

[4]        http://moodle.trincoll.edu/pluginfile.php/284256/mod_resource/content/1/Onishi_SafetyMyth.pdf

[5]           http://moodle.trincoll.edu/pluginfile.php/284254/mod_resource/content/2/Investigation%20Com%20Prelim1211.pdf

[6]           http://moodle.trincoll.edu/pluginfile.php/284255/mod_resource/content/1/naiic_report.pdf

[7] John Ydstie. “Katrina Victims still Struggle to find a Way Home” NPR.com. August 27, 2006. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5720114

Peter Shadbolt. “Japan One Year On: What’s Changed?” CNN.com. March 1, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/26/world/asia/rebuilding-japan-overview/

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