Volume 37, Number 11
Friday, November 11, 2005
What urban myths say about Americans
"Gossip," misinformation led to reports of New Orleans in chaos
By PATRICIA DONOVAN
It is now evident that the reports of child murder, rape, widespread looting, snipers and chaos resulting from the total breakdown of moral and legal order in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina were enormously exaggerated if true at all.
Robert Granfield, UB professor of sociology, notes that although most accounts of criminal mayhem reported by government officials and press alike never actually occurred, the stories tell us much about the American psyche, what Americans believe about the poor and minorities, and what they expect in a time of disaster. Such beliefs, he says, have dangerous consequences.
"Stories of snipers, child murder, rape, rampant looting and general social and moral chaos had little to do with reality," he says, "but arose out of gossip and misinformation."
Granfield notes that often a single incident was reported to the press and public by so many onlookers and officials that it was mistaken for several incidents of the same kind.
"The stories were generalized and then typified," he adds. "Reporters had neither the time nor the ability to investigate these claims, and so repeated them as facts. One gunshot or drowning or stolen television became 10, and 10 became 100. Hungry people taking bread off shelves were generalized into 'massive looting' and then typified as the rule, not the exception," he says.
Why were these unverified reports so readily repeated?
"News programs and newspapers rely on violence and drama to fill pages and air time," Granfield reminds us. "This addicts the public to hyper-inflated drama. News organizations that rely on these dramas to sell themselves to their addicted audience are less likely to attempt to disprove them before they report it," Granfield says.
"The fact is, however, that in the U.S., crimes against person and property are the lowest since 1973. The public, constantly exposed to lurid news stories of child murder, bombings, rapes and other kinds of violence, is not aware of the declining crime rate. Many apparently believe that we're just one police department or one National Guard unit away from anarchy," Granfield says.
"That's one reason we could believe the reports out of New Orleans of widespread chaos and immoral behavior, although the vast, vast majority of people exhibited uncommon courage, kindness, cooperation and generosity, despite their own terror and losses."
And Americans believed them, says Granfield, because the alleged perpetrators were those to whom they attribute moral lassitude, lack of self-control and criminal nature—the urban minority poor. "The concepts of 'crime' and 'criminals' are socially constructed and independent of actual crime rates or perpetrators. What we believe about crime is based on expectation, our general trust in the human desire for order and assumptions about others."
"Our assumptions about poor minority members permitted us to believe that these people—not people 'like us' but those with whom we do not identify—have no control over themselves, and so their presumed 'dark natures' ruled the day," he says.
So the fact that so many Americans believed reports of chaos says more about them than about the supposed "disaster criminals."
"It indicates that we don't trust other people to behave decently in a crisis, that we are afraid that without the usual administrators of law and order, we have total chaos," he says, "although history does not bear this out.
"It is dangerous for us to trust news stories that support our assumptions without investigation," Granfield says.
"It leaves us ignorant, promotes racial and ethnic distrust, and supports the idea that a military buildup among civilians—especially 'those' civilians—is necessary to maintain social control in America 'just in case' something disastrous occurs."
"In fact," he says, "the majority of the chaos and documented immoral behavior arose not out of the population, but out of a failure of governance. It was marked by a breakdown in local, state and federal government communications and emergency preparedness, and earlier political negligence that left the infrastructure open to ruin. Hundreds of public servants abandoned police and prison posts, leaving their helpless charges to fend for themselves, and then there was the police department of the town of Gretna who lined up to turn back exhausted and frightened New Orleans refugees by shooting over their heads."
"Official hysteria reigned, the facts were misrepresented, the press could not investigate and reported the worst, which in turn supported public assumptions about that population. We were left with an 'idea' of the New Orleans disaster that, now, as the facts continue to come out, is as shocking and shameful as the behavior we assumed to be true."
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